Review – Cilla the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th February 2018

Cilla the MusicalOne of the ways in which you can categorise celebrity deaths is whether or not they were expected. In 2015 we said goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Val Doonican, George Cole, Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell, who were all in their 80s or 90s so perhaps they were no shock. But we also lost Keith Harris (and, as a result, Orville too), Errol Brown, and, Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Cilla, who’d been a huge pop star in the 60s, then the mainstay of Saturday night BBC1 entertainment for many seasons; who then bounced back in the 1980s with Surprise Surprise, Blind Date and many other guest appearances and shows; Cilla, who after a few years never needed to use her surname because everyone knew who you meant; Cilla was dead at the age of 72 following a simple fall at her apartment in Spain.

There have been many stories, both before and since her death, about how down to earth she was (or wasn’t), how genuine her Scouse accent was (or wasn’t), and suchlike. I’m not going to go down that path, as Cilla the Musical takes its own occasional sideswipe at her character. There’s no sentimentalising her professional jealousy of Bobby’s upcoming musical career, or how unnecessarily cantankerous she could be in dealings with – for example – Burt Bacharach. But lives are full of intrigue, and if the story of Cilla didn’t dip into a few less rosy aspects of her character or her career, then it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

Cilla the singerBill Kenwright’s production took Jeff Pope’s brilliant TV series about her life (starring Sheridan Smith) as its inspiration to create a musical that tells the story of her early years as a typist, trying to break into music, meeting Brian Epstein, palling up with the Beatles, recording with George Martin, an unsuccessful attempt to break into the US market, and finishing up with her own Cilla BBC TV show. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go with that particular stage of her life and career, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the story just stopped a bit too early. It utilises the songs of the time – not only Cilla’s hits (not all of them, mind) but also a couple of Beatles numbers, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It and the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a duff song in the show (those early numbers are a bit weak, and I’m not a fan of Through The Years which rounds it all off) but musically it really packs a punch, with some truly classic hits which really push your nostalgia button.

I loved Gary McCann’s set from the start – a brilliant evocation of the Cavern club, with all those brick archways stretching further and further back; you really get the sense of being in some vibrant, creative basement where extraordinary things could happen. It combines perfectly with Nick Richings’ amazing lighting scheme, which gives vitality to a drab setting transforming it to somewhere genuinely exciting. The big sparkly Cilla sign that heralded in her TV show said everything you needed to know about the dual identity of celebrity – its irresistible flashiness, its essential artificiality.

Cilla the Cavern club performerThe presentation of real-life people on stage is always a sticky wicket. To what extent do you do an impersonation? A half-impersonation? A mere suggestion of the real person? It’s almost impossible to get it right. And this for me is where I have something of a problem with this show. Executive Producer, Robert Willis, Cilla’s real-life son, said “we wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit.” Kara Lily Hayworth, who won the open audition to play Cilla, is a splendid singer with a rich, beautiful voice. She also has a great feel for the character, her young cheekiness, her determination; the two moments where she rejects Bobby’s support are so realistically portrayed that they leave you quite breathless with shock. And I think it’s absolutely true – she does capture the spirit of the one and only Cilla.

But Cilla had a unique vocal quality in comparison with the other female performers of her era – the ability to combine the sweetness of the melody with the harsh reality of the lyric. It must have come from her association with George Martin or Lennon/McCartney, because you also see it so clearly in many Beatles’ tracks. Whilst I love (and to be fair, prefer) the big hits of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw, in some of Cilla’s major recordings there is almost an undercurrent of anger, or violence, or utter sorrow moulded into her phrasing and enunciation. Phrases like “loving you the way I do, I take you back”, “love comes love shows, I give my heart and no one knows that I do” and perhaps most of all “when he hears the things that you did you’ll get a belt from yer dad” are all infused with true desperation or sadness; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think Ms Hayworth conveyed any of those emotions at all.

Cilla the guitaristsWe know that she’s not impersonating Cilla, but simply giving a suggestion of her musical performances whilst singing to her own personal strengths and style. That is a fair enough position to take when you’re recreating a well-known real-life person on stage. The trouble is – the Gerry Marsden impersonation was excellent; the Beatles’ impersonations were pretty spot-on; and the Mamas and Papas sequence was fantastic. In his brief appearance as Ed Sullivan, Alan Howell absolutely captured that rather formal, uncomfortable and stilted manner of speaking that Ed Sullivan had; his slightly patronising tone when he was addressing the youth of the day on his TV show. So when the main character isn’t a strong impersonation, but so many of the other performances are, then it leaves a feeling of unbalance.

For me, Ms Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla’s songs was simply too pretty, too stylish and insufficiently hard-edged. Singing to a child that he can face physical punishment from his drunk father, with a soft, sweet, optimistic tone, just felt wrong to me. Sometimes I don’t think the very showbizzy arrangements of some of the iconic songs did her any favours. Listen to the original recording of Step Inside Love and feel that haunting and haunted concern at the end where the trailing guitar solo just fades away as if to say… maybe he won’t come back this time. It’s a spine-tingling arrangement by Paul McCartney. In this show, it ends with a triumphant showbiz major key happy ending. That was weird. It wasn’t even as though that’s how they did it on Cilla’s TV show.

Cilla at the PalladiumDon’t get me wrong; Ms Hayworth is a terrific singer and a wonderful new find – I just felt that emotionally she didn’t quite give enough. Mrs Chrisparkle observed that in the very moving scene where Bobby’s and Cilla’s relationship appears to be at an end, their performance of You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ was notable for the way Carl Au’s Bobby absolutely stole the number, with his passion, regret and sorrow, whilst Ms Hayworth was almost a backing singer in comparison. Talking of whom; Carl Au is superb as Bobby. The cheeky lad down the bar; the hapless negotiator; the guilt-laden son; the self-effacing boyfriend; the nervous prospective son-in-law; the desperate one who eats humble pie and asks for forgiveness. He gets them all perfectly, and is also a fantastic singer; his performance of A Taste of Honey is one of the highlights of the evening.

Cilla the managerAndrew Lancel is very convincing as the enigmatic Brian Epstein, a man who had everything and nothing. Softly spoken, quietly manipulative, full of the sexual repression that is heartbreakingly brought out in the juxtaposition with John Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I thought he really brought the character to life. Tom Sowinski also gives a good representation of George Martin’s extremely polite, business-like but friendly manner. Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald are excellent as Cilla’s parents, squeezing every ounce of humour out of their old-fashioned ways. Billie Hardy and Amy Bridges give great support as Cilla’s girl friends and also in a variety of other minor roles.

Hopefully the few snags we saw on the Tuesday night were ironed out for the rest of the run; it was a shame that the emotional scene where Cilla and Bobby hear of the death of Brian Epstein (sorry, spoilers) was almost ruined by frantic running sounds from backstage as cast members tried to get into place for the next scene in time. As it is, when the next scene started, one microphone was swung round too quickly to get into place and hit one of the singers on the nose (I think she may actually have yelped), and some of the solo musicians (very effective brass, by the way) were late getting on to stage so that it all felt a little shambolic. Ah well, first night in a new theatre, and all that.

Cilla the signIt’s a feelgood show that overall looks superb and is full of great songs to enjoy. Whilst it’s not quite a singular sensation in my book, it’s still very enjoyable and if you like a dollop of 60s nostalgia to accompany a fascinating biographical storyline, It’s For You. After Northampton, the tour continues to Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Woking, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Norwich, with further dates to be announced.

Production photos by Matt Martin

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a welcome return last Friday to the effervescent Dan Evans hosting another Screaming Blue Murder with three wonderful acts and two delightful intervals. Another packed house – aren’t they all nowadays? – but with a really strange crowd. I think there was a large party that arrived quite late so they couldn’t all sit together; therefore the room was scattered with people who knew each other very well – which was perplexing to some of the comics but comedy gold too – as you will see…

Dan EvansAmongst the crowd were three baby-faced youths on the front row who admitted to being 19 years old, but I’m not so sure; but they were very good sports as almost everyone picked on them at some point. There was also a lady who worked at John Lewis’; Dan got very excited about the prospects for wheedling discounts out of her until he discovered she worked at the warehouse. Dan was on great form as always and got us in the perfect mood for an anarchic night.

James DowdeswellOur first act was James Dowdeswell, whom we’ve seen here three times before, but there’s been a goodly gap since the last time, so his act was fresh as a daisy to us. With an IT geeky face and a certain degree of west country poshness, he delivers a range of very funny and frequently self-deprecating humour, and struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. He has some great stag-do material, and gets a lot of mileage out of his recent engagement and arrangements for his forthcoming nuptuals. All very enjoyable stuff.

And at some point during James’ routine, at the back of the room, and more vocal than was good for him, came the voice of Reg. Reg is a lorry driver. What kind of goods does he transport? White Goods. Cocaine! shouted half the people who knew him. It wasn’t long before Reg was “the supplier” to the whole audience. Nice work if you can get it. Little did we know how Reg would feature later on.

Kate LucasOur second act, and a change to the advertised programme, was Kate Lucas, who was new to us. Where has she been hiding all this time? Kate’s speciality is comedy songs with a twist – a twist of a neck, that is, as she gets so angry during her songs. They’re really funny and inventive – and because she has the voice of an angel and the charm of a Swiss Finishing School Product, her venom is all the more surprising and effective. She has songs that express the disappointment of how ugly a baby can be; a typical argument between husband and wife; and where you can choose to go to Heaven or to Hell. They’re all super-savage and absolutely brilliant. We even joined in. Everybody loved her!

Russell HicksOur headline act, and someone you can always trust to react to the room, was Russell Hicks. The first time I saw him I was disappointed that he went off tangent so much to react to what was going on around him that I felt like I missed out on his act “proper”. Now I know going off on one is his raison de comédie. He was wearing a rather flash sheepskin coat, of which he was clearly proud until someone said he looked like John Motson. Mr Hicks’ American upbringing meant he never got to watch the beloved Motty on Match of the Day, so he insisted on someone Googling his photo for him. One look at the picture and he threw the coat on to the floor in disgust and declared war on us.

But we had Reg as part of our ammunition, who, as I intimated earlier, wasn’t backward in coming forward. Mr Hicks unearthed him from the back of the room, made him swap places with Ravi (the most amenable of the 19 year olds) but then Ravi started kicking off. Mr H was clearly beguiled by a lady in an orange dress and spoke of his admiration for her primary colours when we all shouted back that orange isn’t a primary colour (because you can make if from mix red and yellow of course!) Flummoxed that we all knew our primary colours – but having whipped the room into a frenzy of enjoyment – all Mr H had to do was keep jabbing away at our idiosyncrasies and oddities, and his forty minutes just flew by. As he said at the end, this was one of the absolute weirdest sets he’d done but also one of the funniest. An absolute master at running with whatever the crowd chuck at him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so in control.

A genuinely hilarious night’s comedy. Next Screaming Blue is on 9th March. Don’t miss it!

Review – Daliso Chaponda, What the African Said, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2018

Daliso ChapondaThe country knows – and has taken to their heart – Daliso Chaponda from his appearances on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I know him from one of last year’s Screaming Blue Murder shows where he absolutely slayed the audience and I had no hesitation in awarding him the 2017 Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Stand-up! Now he’s back at the Royal for one of his first dates in his first ever UK tour, and already he’s selling out (seats, not material) everywhere he goes. And there’s a good reason for this. The man is utterly hysterical.

Tony VinoBut first – a support act. We spent the first half hour in the company of Tony Vino – whom we’ve not seen before – and he’s a very funny guy! He has a lot of nice observational comedy about family life including kids on roller shoes, and dealing with American customs officers’ sense of humour (they don’t have one.) I particularly enjoyed his material about having a vasectomy and sharing surgical memories with other snipped guys in the audience. But best of all was his Lion King finale, ostensibly to create an African atmosphere to welcome Mr Chaponda back for the second half, but really an excuse to get about ten people up from the audience in a hilarious re-enactment of Simba’s Greatest Hour. If you get called up, just go for it, like the Northampton guys last night. It was brilliant.

Daliso-ChapondaBut it’s all about Mr Chaponda. There are few comics who strike up such an instant rapport because they are so genuinely likeable. He is the epitome of cheekiness, with a permanently sunny personality that he uses to enormous effect to deliver sometimes quite serious material. He doesn’t shy away from race; in fact there’s a considerable segment of the show where we’re asked to judge the relative seriousness of examples of celebrity use of the N word. But he frames it all with both irreverence and kindliness, which is a unique mix. He has some killer jokes regarding slavery. He even has a little material that’s based on his being abused as a child, whereat the audience falls silent with shock and empathy; and then he rounds it off with a perfect punchline that had me snorting into my hand.

DalisoThe show is very cleverly structured, much of it spent with his telling us all the times when he thought a joke wasn’t in any way “unacceptable” but then discovering it was – with us hearing the material in order to judge it, of course. And, naturally, it’s inevitably incredibly near the knuckle and absolutely hilarious, whilst he feigns surprise at how this “innocuous” joke could possibly cause offence. He’s very quick-witted and you sense that you could see his show a number of times and you’d get a different slant each time. That said, there was some repetition of his Screaming Blue material from last year, but it’s all brilliant, so it was great to hear it again. I’d forgotten how much I love his visual representation of the problems a shorter man faces when attempting a 69.

DChapondaAs an encore we re-enacted his Britain’s Got Talent audition, with members of the audience as the panel, including a very butch Amanda Holden and a very white Alisha Dixon. It was an appropriate way to end the night, linking it to his best-known TV appearance and delivering a few sure-fire one-liners. Mr Chaponda is pure comedy gold. Thank heavens his history lessons concentrated on Henry VIII so that he just had to move to the UK. His tour continues right through till June so do yourself a favour and book!!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice, Graduates 2018 Showcase Programme, 14th February 2018

2018 ShowcaseI was delighted to receive an invitation to the Dress Rehearsal for this year’s London Showcase for the 2018 Graduates of the University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice course. Last year, when I saw the London Showcase, I had already seen the actors in a number of different roles from their appearances at the Royal and at the Flash Festival. This really helped assess the versatility of the performers, and I was surprised at the range some of them achieved. Because of a change in structure of the courses, I’ve only seen these 2018 Graduates in one previous production, Balm in Gilead. So this was just my second opportunity to see them show off their talents, hopefully to attract the attention of agents and managers and to give their careers a jolly good kickstart.

Joe ConroyMy friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind braved the icy cold to trek up to the Maidwell Hall to watch the cast of fourteen assemble a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, either short sketches or extracts from longer works. Some were extremely serious, giving the cast the opportunity to plumb the depths of aggression or bereavement, to create passionate and hard-hitting drama; others were light-hearted and funny, which brings a totally different strength and skillset to the Showcase. It’s human nature to identify with, and moreover like, someone on stage who makes you laugh; so when you’re trying to win the attention of professionals, whom you want to have on your side in the future, personally I think a good dollop of endearing humour can go a long way.

James GraysonThere were some stand-out sketches and performances for me that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought were superbly acted. The best of the more serious fare was a scene featuring James Grayson and Joe Conroy as two antagonistic attendees at a funeral, with Bobbie-Lee Scott caught between them as a grieving mother. All three gave powerful performances, spitting out the venom of their speeches with glee, but I particularly enjoyed Mr Grayson’s ability to convey controlled anger – every insult hit home, each word was deliciously enunciated. Ms Scott also appeared in a very enjoyable sketch with Amber Jade Harrison where she hilariously ridiculed Ms Harrison’s character’s previous choice of boyfriend, outrageously assassinating the poor off-stage chap whilst she herself was horrendously clad in a ghastly sparkly pink shell suit top. Her comic timing was perfect and, despite the brevity of the sketch, we had a very strong understanding of her character.

Dean AdamsAnother sketch that worked very well featured Dean Adams and Rhiannon Flambard loafing around in the great outdoors whilst he fantasises about being a duck. It’s an immensely silly but strangely touching little scene which both actors delivered perfectly; he stood out for his ability to convey the character’s quite childlike ideas, delivered completely straight-faced, which just made it even more funny. He was also excellent in a rather dark scene with Tiana Thompson, which begins with his amusing self-congratulation on how good a lover he had been the night before, but which gets creepier as you realise that his character probably committed rape. Ms Thompson, too, was very strong as his victim, carefully but powerlessly piecing together her recollections of the night and unable to conclude whether there’s anything she can do to put it right.

Bobbie-Lee ScottThere’s a delightfully cringey scene between a painfully awkward Ross Bayliss and a voluptuously forward Freya Mawhinney where she realises, post-party, that she accidentally went off with the wrong bloke; I really liked Mr Bayliss’s self-deprecating persona in both his scenes. Daniel Peace, James Grayson and Jemma Bentley all feature in a part hilarious, part harrowing scene where a menage a trois seems to have gone seriously wrong; and Mr Peace was also excellent in a two-hander (pardon the pun) where he asked Mr Conroy to inspect his undercarriage as he thought he had a lump down there. Both actors really conveyed the awkward humour of that situation superbly.

Jemma BentleyIf I were to be handing out awards for the best performers, then I would say James Grayson, Jemma Bentley, Bobbie-Lee Scott and Dean Adams would probably be jockeying for position with the best chances. But the great thing about this Showcase is that everyone gave a great account of themselves and the standard of performance was very high. The big event is at the Soho Theatre on Friday 16th February and I’m sure the whole group will deliver some outstanding performances!

Review – Canterbury Tales, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 8th February 2018

Canterbury TalesI think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.

Alexandra PienaruThe Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.

Anna GallagherFor me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!

Ceara CoveneyI was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.

Oliver FranksDespite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.

Chloe HoffmeisterMany of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.

Canterbury TalesSo, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?

Review – Accused, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 7th February 2018

AccusedIt’s been 54 years since the last person was hanged in the UK, but it was as recent as 2004 that capital punishment was abolished under all circumstances. It’s the ultimate punishment, the ultimate deterrent, and has always been a source of passionate argument either in favour or against, depending on your view. But supposing you knew someone, or had to work alongside someone, or lived with someone, who had committed a crime so heinous that the State had decided their life had to be terminated? Would you loathe them for their crime? Pity them for facing their unavoidable fate? Befriend them in a last chance of human support?

Alexander Forrester-ColesThis devised play takes Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol as its inspiration, that haunting, haunted work analysing reaction to the death penalty by the prisoners. The condemned man had killed the thing he loved; but each man kills the thing he loves, so it’s a case of There but for the Grace of God. And that’s what the audience feels too; without knowing the crime that our prisoner has committed, we can’t have a truly informed reaction to his plight. And it’s the not knowing that really makes this a curiously intense and thought-provoking drama.

Jac BurbridgeWhen you arrive in the church, you’re disconcerted from the start. Should you sit in the pews? Should you sit in the choirstalls? There are various prisoners loafing their way around the chancel, but a burly guard has his back to you and you wonder, do I dare walk past him and sit down? You do. The prisoners are enjoying (if that’s the right word) their free association time, so you eavesdrop on conversations, games, petty squabbles, and so on. One solitary prisoner seems very uncomfortable in this environment; we later discover that he has a great aptitude for art and an addiction to accuracy –- thus I deduced he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Into this melting pot arrives the Accused; a man with a reputation so bad that (almost) all the other prisoners avoid him, swear at him, despise him. Only the autistic prisoner doesn’t avoid him, but only because there’s still 23 minutes of his free time left.

Kate Morgan-JonesThere are four guards, each with a different attitude to the prisoner. One detests him for what he has done, and doubtless will show him no mercy at any time he’s under his tender care. Another treats him like any other prisoner – which is with great kindness as she is the nurturing type. A third is ghoulishly fascinated by him – almost a fan – and wants to know how it feels to have your own death hovering so near. The fourth, whilst naturally an enforcer, is prepared to bend the odd rule to make his last few days more bearable.

Robert BarnesApart from Alexander Forrester-Coles, playing the Accused, and Jake Statham as the cleaner, this is very much an ensemble piece. Mr Forrester-Coles plays the role as the archetypal strong and silent type. He combines the mystery of the man with an essential dignity which was most impressive to witness. His self-protecting barriers are all up; refusing to answer questions, or to rise to the bait of taunting prisoners. But he will attack back if he identifies a weak spot in one of his critics’ characters, and as he gets closer to his death he does open up a little to reveal something of the man behind the mask. It’s a very strong and compelling performance and I was totally convinced by him. Just as the Accused is the man that everyone notices, Mr Statham was also excellent as the man no one notices, the cleaner; an outsider in a different way, talking out of turn to the audience as if we’re his mates, a kind of Everyman character. I would have liked to see more of him as the intensity of the play develops, to get his Everyman take on what’s going on, rather than just having him “bookend” the action. Technically, as not the best hearer in the world, I really appreciated the clarity of his speech which definitely helped his characterisation to shine through; a minor character but a major performance.

Radostin RadevWhat impressed me most about the piece was how extremely high the overall standard of performance was; in previous years, there have always been one or two people whose range and complexity has left just a little to be desired but this cast is the closest I’ve seen to a “dream team” since I’ve been watching these student plays.

Xara ChisanoKate Morgan-Jones stands out as the ringleader of the prisoner ruffians. Belligerent, argumentative, determined; you really wouldn’t want to cross her. Offering a very different characterisation, I thought Robert Barnes was superb as the loner prisoner; again very credible, his delivery was beautifully paced throughout, and you could see the complexity of his thought processes straining to get through his expressions. I also really enjoyed D B Gallagher’s junkie prisoner, responding with quiet desperation to any threat that endangers his access to drugs. Jac Burbidge also excelled in his variety of roles, both as the firebrand guard speechless with horror at having to deal with the Accused, and as the ever-so-helpful priest exchanging pleasantries with the executioner (a delightfully understated performance from Georgi McKie).

Georgi McKieI was very impressed with Radostin Radev as the ghoulishly fascinated guard; he played him with style, assurance and just a perfect touch of eerie nastiness. Xara Chisano’s performance as the fourth guard enabled you to see all her inner conflicts, which created a truly fascinating character from not many words; this was another very assured and realistic performance. And Ellen Tritton portrayed the well-meaning guard with great clarity and simplicity; I loved the way that whenever any of the prisoner’s rejected her help she carried on regardless without ever taking it personally – a very strong characterisation.

Jake StathamEveryone created a very memorable impression of their own characters and their part in the play. You could pick this production up and plonk it down in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe and it would make good money. I went home full of my own thoughts and responses to the issues raised by the play and the various characters. Exceptional stuff! Congratulations all!