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?

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting, Undergraduates 2017 Showcase Programme, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 21st June 2017

ShowcaseOver the past eight months it’s been my privilege to attend several productions featuring the 3rd Year Acting students of Northampton University. I’ve been to Isham Dark (isn’t that in The Lord of the Rings?) to see Shrapnel andShe Echoes. I’ve been to the Royal Theatre to see Posh, Pornography and Vinegar Tom. I saw all fifteen of this year’s Flash Festival shows. And I was honoured to be invited to attend their London showcase on Wednesday, where they once again showed their talent in front of an audience including many theatrical agents and directors.

Karr KennedyWhilst I also saw the 2016 bunch at the Royal and in some Flash shows, I didn’t get to see their early productions and I didn’t see their showcase. The benefit of seeing individual performers in at least four different productions is that you can really get a sense of their versatility, their strengths, their vocal abilities and so on. You can see when an individual really excels in a role, or when they rise to a challenge and really surprise you; just as sometimes you can see when someone takes an unsuitable role, or for some reason just doesn’t bring to the stage what you hope from them. I love going to the theatre – I always want to enjoy it, I always want to appreciate the best of what I see. And that is my watchword for when I write a review; I will always try to concentrate on the good, and if I have criticisms, I try to be constructive with them. But I also always have to be honest, because there’s simply no point in doing it if I’m not. As at today I think I’ve seen approximately 1450 productions – so I do have quite a lot of experience from the front stalls!

Ben HamptonThe showcase was a fascinating experience for me to witness for the first time. Almost all the students appeared in fifteen short sketches or playlets, either parts of a longer work or mini-masterpieces in their own right. It seemed to me that it was essential to make the correct choice to show off each individual’s most marketable qualities. Use of humour was important; two of the pieces were absolutely hilarious, and in both cases the four performers – Karr Kennedy and Jessica Bichard in Diary of a Madman, and Lauren Scott and Olly Manning in Beyond Therapy – came across with really top quality performances. High drama also works well: scenes with great conflict, soul searching, confrontation and argument were memorable and brought out the best in the performers: Olivia Sarah Jayne Noyce and Benjamin Hampton in a scene from Closer, Victoria Rowlands and Joseph T Callaghan in The Mercy Seat, and Steven Croydon, Connor McCreedy and Jack James in First Light all excelled here.

Becky FowlerIt’s when the scene really feels like it’s part of a much larger work that I sometimes felt the performers had a harder task to project themselves. Nevertheless, I thought that Kundai Kanyama and Ben Barton created a fascinating scenario in their scene from Let the Right One In, as did Jennifer Wyndham, Becky Fowler and Jessica Bridge in Di and Viv and Rose; both scenes were very engaging and the actors created very identifiable and believable characters. There were some quirky scenes too; Luke Mortimore and Tom Garland presenting a very disconcerting but strangely convincing scenario in Perve; and Jennifer Etherington and Rachel Graham-Brown rounding ominously on the hapless Daniel Ambrose-Jones in the picnic from hell in Morning. Regarding the six sketches I haven’t mentioned – that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them or think they were well performed, but perhaps they didn’t quite have the same impact as the others.

Victoria RowlandsIt was great to talk to so many of this year’s “team” after the show, and to hear about what plans they have for the immediate future and in which directions they hope the careers will go long term. They really are a splendid bunch of people! What I learned specifically from an alcohol point of view was that Helena Fenton is not to be trusted with any sharp movements if you have a full glass in your hand (almost a calamity), Chris Drew can’t pour prosecco for toffee and Hans Oldham was shocked when I lurched for a third glass of the aforementioned prosecco – although less so when we agreed to share the remainder of the bottle.

Liam FaikI was there with my friend and co-reviewer A Small Mind at the Theatre and he has very bravely committed to paper his award-winners for the year. Whereas last year there were a few absolutely stand-out performers that were very obviously the best, this year, for me, choosing the best is a much harder task. I’ve had a stab at selecting my favourites, but I cannot come up with a short-list that I think truly represents everyone’s capabilities. To be honest, any one person from this intake is a potential star in the making. All I can do is wish everyone the very best of luck and I look forward to following everyone’s careers in the future – and thanks again for a year’s worth of great shows!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Manuel Harlan