Review – Brief Encounter, Playhouse Theatre Northampton, 31st January 2018

Brief EncounterConsidering it’s been around since 1945, it’s a disgrace that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever properly watched the film of Brief Encounter. It’s one of those hardy perennials that always emerges at Christmas on some minor TV channel or other. If you notice it in the listings you say to yourself “not that old thing again” and so you don’t watch it, forgetting the fact that you never actually did in the first place. I have, now, seen some of the opening credits, and the final credit, as they frame this production of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic. I’ve also seen some gems of adverts that are shown as a curtain raiser – it’s worth taking your seat early so that you can enjoy them. I distinctly remember the early days of Quosh but have no memory at all of Cephos Powder. And I’d forgotten all about Midland Counties Ice Cream.

Mary O'Brien as LauraOf course, those portentous black and white meetings between Celia Johnson (whom I actually saw on stage in 1972) and Trevor Howard (whom I didn’t) are about as iconic as you can get, an embodiment of wartime stiff upper lip, reserved passion and a regretful acceptance of a less than satisfactory status quo. Showing this classic on the tiny stage of the Northampton Playhouse by a company of non-professionals is, what I believe to be the correct term, A Big Ask. But I was really impressed at the ambition and realisation of the technicality of the project, and overall it worked extremely well.

Jof Davies as AlecThe cast and creative team have gone to town on creating the illusion of a 1945 cinema; in fact, the whole performance is a blend of live theatre and film recreating the outside world. Immaculately coiffured with 1940s hairdos, usherettes with torches control the auditorium, trying to shush our loving couple as they have an awkward contretemps during the Big Feature. At the interval, meat paste sandwiches and Banbury buns are on offer. There’s also a raffle – we won a box of chocolates, so bang goes the post-Christmas diet – again. Specially recorded black and white film sequences show our hero and heroine sat miserably on their trains home; they also beckon a steam train onto the stage or off into the distance; backdrop projections suggest the railway station’s café, or the almost-posh hotel restaurant, where ladies who lunch, lunch. Film also enables conversations between Laura and her kids, spiffingly well played by young Will Foreman and Casey O’Sullivan.

Laura and Alec fall inHaving read the synopsis of the film, it seems to me that the adaptation reflects the original pretty faithfully, with the inclusion of a few spirited additions. Stanley, the station dogsbody, and Beryl, the tea room assistant, break through the fourth wall to give us a few reprises of Any little fish can swim, a Noel Coward song from the 1931 Cochran Revue. Myrtle Bagot, the café proprietor, and Beryl give us separate renditions of the famous Mad About the Boy, another Coward hit, from the 1932 show Words and Music. In a production that, by necessity, has a number of relatively slow scene changes (mainly due to the size of the stage), having these interludes is a great way to disguise what’s going on behind the curtain; a song and dance version of a stately swan whose grace and elegance you notice without ever knowing that his feet are going nineteen to the dozen to keep him afloat. Very nicely done.

April Pardoe as Myrtle BagotAt the heart of the play – and indeed heart being the operative word – are the loving twosome of Mary O’Brien and Jof Davies as Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey. They both portray that sense of struggling against one’s better nature extremely well, and they both absolutely look the part. Mr Davies perfectly captured the embarrassment of being caught almost in flagrante by his work colleague at his flat – a delightfully toe-curling scene; and I found his sense of resignation at the end – just being able to put his hand on Laura’s shoulder whilst her irritating friend natters on in complete ignorance – very moving. Ms O’Brien’s clarity of diction is a thing of beauty which really helped her rich characterisation of the troubled Laura. She also shone during those embarrassed meetings with acquaintances who could clearly gauge precisely what was going on, despite which, with true decency, she doesn’t tell any lies.

Helen Kennedy as BerylI very much enjoyed the partnership of April Pardoe as Myrtle and Helen Kennedy as Beryl, sparring in the café; Ms Pardoe’s slightly haughty portrayal of the café owner reminded me a little of the late Doris Speed who used to play Annie Walker in Coronation Street. I was very amused by them both manhandling all the buns and then offering them to the front row. Ms Kennedy’s visual asides at Myrtle’s hectoring were very enjoyable, as were her constant attempts to get away with murder – but Ms Pardoe was having none of it, and quite right too, the young people of today… etc, etc & etc. Adding to this jolly menage a trois is Adrian Wyman as Albert Godby, the stationmaster whose pea in his whistle is aimed firmly at Myrtle. Mr Wyman draws out all the fun of the character as he chisels away at Myrtle’s frosty front until at last, in the immortal words of Daft Punk, he’s up all night to Get Lucky. Gordon Ritchie gives a spirited, cheeky-chappie performance as the impetuous Stanley, and I really liked Beverley Webster’s socially confident and thoroughly insensitive Dolly Messiter, ruining Laura and Alec’s passionate goodbye by dumping her shopping all over their table.

Adrian Wyman as Albert GodbyIn two very amusing vignettes, Ingrid Heymann plays the waitress at the restaurant, teetering on the edge of the stage, precariously balancing two bowls of soup (I’m sure the gentleman next to me who couldn’t resist call out “two soups!” wasn’t the only person this week to have that thought), reflecting the generosity of her patrons’ tips with either a sneer or a surprised pleasure. In another funny scene, Simon Rye and Kevin Evans play Johnnie and Bill, a couple of soldier vagabonds with good-time girls on their arms, arguing the toss with an unflinching Mrs Bagot. Mr Evans threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as a loutish military roué under the influence of a pint of cider. It’s a character part.

Gordon Ritchie as StanleyCongratulations to the excellent cast who were word perfect throughout and worked together seamlessly. Mrs C has a low threshold to amateur dramatics, but she left the theatre with a spring in her step, which is a Very Good Sign. It’s a slightly quirky adaptation that I think would appeal to both purists and avant-garde alike. Performances run till Saturday but if you haven’t booked already, then I think you may have left it too late.

Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 21st December 2017

James AcasterOnce again we welcome a big name to a tiny theatre – James Acaster’s pre-Christmas work-in-progress show at the 85-seater Playhouse in Northampton. Why would he deign to visit this humble hive of artistic endeavour when the world is his oyster? Because he’s a local lad done good, that’s why. This was the third and final of the shows – unsurprisingly all the tickets get snapped up the moment the word is out that he’s coming back.

Last year, we had a hoot. Mr Acaster doled out funny sequences and ridiculous insights and was exactly the languid, quirky comic that the nation has taken to its hearts. However, as Mr A told us in this new show, 2017 hasn’t been a kind year. A relationship breakdown, his agent dropping him and visits to a counsellor have all played their part in forming what sounds like his own annus horribilis. And whilst he doesn’t go into any detail in the first two of those events, he does use the counselling sessions as part of his gig. The whole experience sounds appalling. I could only gasp in horror; I couldn’t laugh at that if I tried. If Philip Pullman hadn’t already nabbed His Dark Materials as a title, it would be perfect for Mr A’s current mindset.

James AcasterThe evening started promisingly, with some lovely observations about expecting the end of the year and then being all surprised when it turns into January again. He then reminisced about how much he enjoyed 1999 – a great year for him – and how 2017 was rubbish by comparison. I too remember the eclipse of 1999; it was a fascinating and beautiful moment. However, not being a Manchester United fan, I remembered nothing of their particular success that year. Mr A has a lot of Manchester United material; and, to be honest, it did go on a bit. After the interval, he had more excellent material about the dreaded Brexit; very beautifully crafted, cleverly never saying the B word, or indeed the R word, and for me that was the highlight of the show.

But then Mr A seemed to lose heart with us; we weren’t responding as he’d hoped and that’s when our relationship faltered. There had been an elephant in the room right from the start – and that’s Northampton. Whenever a touring comic comes to a town, they inevitably ask the audience what it’s like living there and inevitably the reply comes back: “it’s sh*t”. This is certainly true of Northampton audiences, and I expect they say the same thing in Chelsea. It’s very trendy – almost a badge of honour – to knock where you live. Because Mr A is a Northamptonshire Native, he knows full well all the town’s downsides; and now that he lives in London he can pile on the caustic humour of looking down on Northampton. That’s fair enough, so long as you accompany it with the verbal or physical equivalent of a winking emoji.

j-acaster-2The trouble was, Mr A’s disappointment with a Northampton audience’s responses came across as too real. I personally felt like I was under some kind of cultural attack. We were ridiculed for our inability to appreciate all his material because we’re not sophisticated enough. We were made to feel guilty for the fact that we were an all-white audience; that’s really not our fault! When he changed his planned ending, because he didn’t think we’d get it, to a Q&A session, someone in the audience groaned at one of his answers; not a nasty, heckling groan, more a teasing, comedic groan. Mr A basically said that was a typical Northampton response and the show finished fairly abruptly thereafter.

Now all this could be really tongue-in-cheek on his part, all part of a double-bluff which we’re not meant to take seriously. But Mr A had been like this all night and hadn’t built up a trust rapport at which he could later chisel away. He started the night with the idea that we shouldn’t get too emotionally attached to him because we’re never going to be friends, he’s just there to do a job and go home. In isolation, that’s a funny observation to make; but throughout the course of the evening I felt more and more that he wasn’t joking and that he would have been happier at home. As a result, there wasn’t much positivity for us to grab hold of and keep us onside for the whole show.

James AWhether this is true or made up, I don’t know, but at one stage Mr A said that he’d received a tweet after the previous show that just read: “James Acaster needs a hug” (big laugh, because I reckon a number of us thought that) to which he responded that he didn’t need a hug, and that reaction is patronising. That’s probably true too. Trouble is, it signified that we really didn’t know how to respond to him without seeming to offend him, which made for a generally uncomfortable evening. He always comes across as a genuinely nice guy – so when he gets aggressive, it just feels wrong.

But that’s what work-in-progress is all about.

Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!

Review – Theatrical Knights, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Theatrical KnightsLast night was my first visit to the Playhouse Theatre since its recent, fresh redecoration – and I must say, nice work guys, very comfortable and chic! This week’s play is Theatrical Knights, a comedy thriller by Keith Lipscombe. What’s that? You’ve never heard of him? He’s written three plays, but I believe this is the first time any of them have actually been produced on stage – so it’s a true theatrical debut. And that’s not the only debut on offer; the director is none other than local hero and alternative blog source of everything theatrical in Northampton, Kevin Evans, a.k.a. A Small Mind at the Theatre. It was a no-brainer that I would go along to see what the combination of a rookie playwright and even rookier director would come up with.

The betSome plays remind you of others, right? Theatrical Knights was written as an homage to the late Anthony Shaffer, and traces of his classic thriller Sleuth are written through this play like a stick of rock. There’s a clothed dummy, weapons on the wall, a clown’s mask and a slightly curious relationship between an older and a younger man. There are also some slightly spurious details in the programme’s dramatis personae to keep you guessing. However, Theatrical Knights is very much its own play, and if you think you’re going to see Sleuth 2, you’ll be very surprised. The knights in question are writer and luvvie Sir Tom Seymour, a little down on his uppers as his most recent theatrical projects have all collapsed in a heap; and national treasure Sir Anthony Randolph, that rare being who rose through the ranks to become one of our best loved actors, excelling not only in the West End and on TV, but also in Hollywood. We’re truly lucky to have him with us at this discreet little venue.

These two old fellas keep their friendship (such as it is) going by a series of quips, stings and digs and by the rivalry that causes them to bet against each other. When we first meet Sir Tom, he’s clearly had an accident, and has lost his mobile in the back of a taxi the night before, presumably following some kind of crash. Sir Tom rang his own mobile number, the cabbie answered, and they arranged that he would bring it over. Meanwhile, Sir Tony wants to see him, ostensibly to make sure his old mucker is ok, and his visit coincides with the cab driver returning the mobile; so far, so straightforward. However, just before the cab driver arrives, the two knights talk of how this would be the perfect resolution of their bet. Other details as to what that all means are scarce. Sir Tony goes off, to listen in on their conversation; Lou the cabbie arrives with the phone, Sir Tom turns on the charm and full hospitality and insists on Lou having something to eat, to drink, and so on… and then things start to get out of hand. But exactly what and how, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to come and see it!

Sir TomI was really impressed by the attention to detail that has obviously gone in to the staging of this play, and creating the illusion that the two knights really are real. The walls are covered with posters of Sir Tom’s greatest theatrical hits; the programme has their extensive biographical details; if you arrive half an hour before curtain up you can see a video of an edition of Letts Talk, where renowned arts critic Fabiana Letts hosts a chat show discussion between the two old geezers, and you can even see an extended clip from one of Sir Tom’s big successes, Laughing Matter. (You can actually watch it here if you like!)

Sir TonyIt’s a well-written play, with plenty of amusing and creative dialogue and it weaves its little intricacies very successfully and surprisingly. The different characteristics of the two knights are nicely fleshed out, giving the two actors plenty of opportunity to revel in their individual personalities. Robin Hillman conveys Sir Tom’s waspish and petulant nature with laconic glee; deep down, I don’t think he’s a very nice chap at all! Adrian Wyman really captures Sir Tony’s hail-fellow-well-met temperament, with some beautiful false modesty and some wonderfully stagey regional accents that only a national treasure would get away with. And then there’s Nathan Stroud as Lou, the cab driver; an innocent abroad caught up in the antagonism between the two older men, but with a few secrets of his own up his sleeve.

Laughing MatterAct Two includes a brilliant little coup de theatre, really well executed by Messrs Wyman and Stroud, which you can’t quite believe happened, even after the actors show us how it was done. If I have a little quibble about the play, I’m not sure that Lou’s explanation of why Sir Tom will be found guilty really holds water; wouldn’t the real murderer’s DNA be traced inside the gloves? And the resolution of the play involves a switch to personal redemption issues and general niceness; and I think the audience might be hoping for something a trifle more maleficent.

Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining debut all round, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Mr Lipscombe and Mr Evans creating more theatrical mayhem in the future.

P. S. Have you watched the clip of Laughing Matter yet? I played the murderer!

Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 23rd December 2016

James AcasterI know what you’re thinking. Why on earth is TV, Radio and Fringe star James Acaster playing two nights at the 80-seater Playhouse in Northampton? It’s not even listed as a gig on his website. I believe it’s his way of saying thanks to his local fans – he’s famously from Kettering – and I think it’s an amazingly generous way of spending two evenings in the run-up to Christmas, larking around for two hours on stage (a teeny weeny one) for just a fiver a ticket. We’d seen him 14 months ago, when he performed his Represent show at the Royal in Northampton. I remember him as being delightfully laconic, eerily whimsical, and controlled by a brain the size of a small continent. Mrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, couldn’t remember him at all. I don’t know if that says more about him or her.

James AcasterWe had been encouraged to sit in the front row on entering the auditorium, and after a summer of my being involved in countless comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, the front row of a comedy gig no longer terrifies me – that much. I accept, I was expecting to be picked on, but Mr Acaster only picks on you if you really deserve it. Behave well, and you’ll be fine. His opening gambit was to point out that people only sit in the front row because they want to be picked on, so he refuses to pander to their pre-rehearsed interjections. Very fair point. But he did fix me with his stare every so often, and did choose me to explain what a DM is in Twitter terminology. What did he take me for? Obviously my grey hair suggests an advancement of years that I personally choose to ignore. Also my downbeat chuckle put him off on one occasion. But the star of the show turned out to be the fork lift truck driver recruitment consultant, and the girl he was with who isn’t his girlfriend. His noisy need to go to the gents during the first half was more than Mr A could resist. Be warned for future gigs.

James AHe’s one of those comics that you’ve got no idea how much of the show is scripted, and how much isn’t. He gave us an evening of brilliant material, including the repercussions of Lindsay Lohan’s post-Brexit tweet about Kettering (how dare she), the trials and tribulations of the conga, postcode wars, iffy celebrity gossip, and the true meaning of the Christingle. Admittedly some of this wasn’t new to us having seen him before, but I realise that you could watch him deliver the same material many times over and he would express it with different emphasis each time – so he’s really good value from that point of view!

j-acaster-2We were advised in advance that there was to be “no support act”, but that wasn’t strictly true. He was joined on stage by a Christmas tree – one of those five foot plastic affairs that the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so valued because they weren’t messy on the carpet. The tree ended up playing a vital role in proceedings, as Mr A decided to “operate” it from behind. It’s funnier than it sounds, believe me. There was some Q&A at the end, where someone from the audience asked for the tree’s opinion on some vital subject – cue Mr A returning to his alter ego of Tree. During the melée that followed, I ended up asking the tree what was its favourite bauble. Honestly, I’d only had two Strongbows.

A great way to start the Christmas season!

P. S. I didn’t know why his last tour was called Represent, and I don’t know why this show was called Zebra Xmas. Few things are that black and white, surely? The man’s clearly an enigma.

Review – What The Butler Saw, Masque Theatre, Playhouse, Northampton, 31st May 2016

What The Butler SawWe hadn’t seen any productions by the Masque Theatre before, but, after a suggestion by our friend and blogging colleague Mr Smallmind, we thought we’d bite the bullet for their production of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw. I must be honest; Mrs Chrisparkle did take a little persuasion to agree to come, as the memory of some previous amateur productions she has seen is enough to bring her out in hives. Nevertheless, on the recommendation of our friend and on the strength of the play, we did it.

MasqueI’d always wanted to see a production of What The Butler Saw, but never have – in fact, I realise that this is the first time I have seen any Orton play on stage. I read all his works voraciously when I was about 16, finding them all completely irresistible, and for me they haven’t lost their edge one iota. This classic, blind leading the blind or rather mad leading the sane but but they seem mad, comedy is crammed with fantastically funny lines, strong characters and a beautiful sense of surrealism. It contains some of my favourite quotes from 20th century drama. Mrs Prentice tells her husband she is going to take up with an Indian boyfriend. In the real world this would lead to a response regarding marriage break-up, or jealousy, or fury, or some other emotion. In Orton’s world, however, the man replies: “you can’t take lovers in Asia, the airfare would be crippling”. Apart, of course, from the rather salacious nature of many of his plays, it’s that oddish use of language that really sets him apart from his contemporaries. Mrs Prentice, again, this time when cornered to admit that she’s been faking her orgasms: “my uterine contractions have been bogus for some time!” There’s a delightful bourgeois tone lurking in there. You could almost hear the 1970s Penelope Keith saying it. Even the reunion of twins at the end of the show is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Joe OrtonWhat The Butler Saw wasn’t performed until 1969, two years after Orton’s death and one year after the withdrawal of censorship. I think the censor would have bridled at some of the content but would have been most uncomfortable when dealing with the missing parts of Sir Winston Churchill. Under censorship, you weren’t allowed to “represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead”; and interestingly it was only in the 1975 production that Sergeant Match finally got to hold aloft Winnie’s missing penis (for that, gentle reader, was the erroneous part of his statue lost in the gas explosion, which became embedded in Geraldine’s grandmother). Ralph Richardson, who played Dr Rance in 1969, couldn’t go along with that, so they made do with using Winnie’s cigar instead. Orton would have hated the lack of gumption. Anyway, it’s great to see the play still doing the rounds in both professional and amateur productions.

Dr RanceThere’s no point pretending that this was a perfect production because it wasn’t; nevertheless, I’m not going to criticise anyone who takes part in amateur dramatics because a) I haven’t the guts to do it myself and b) well, it would be churlish. To be fair, the little Playhouse stage lends itself very nicely to the production, and the six actors manage to perform a lot of physical comedy, often just in their underwear, without getting in each other’s way or tripping each other up, which is more than can be said for the recent production of Chicago at the Derngate. The only effect too far for this production was to recreate the security bars that surround the stage once Dr Rance has set off the alarm, making the Sergeant’s final appearance through the skylight more understandable; we just had a change of lighting and to work on our imagination instead.

Jof DaviesPeter Darnell directs the play at a crisp pace and with a nice feel for the nonsensical way in which we, the general public, will do anything that a doctor tells us to in the consulting room. From the cast, Mrs C and I both agreed that the ladies did a particularly good job. Lisa Shepherd gave a very confident performance as Geraldine, desperately clinging on to the idea that there must be some good reason why she’s dressed as a bell-hop, or maybe not dressed much at all. I also thought Nicky Osborne added a lot of oomph to the character of Mrs Prentice, delightfully conveying her open sexual nature and her frustrations at being lumbered with Dr Prentice. I enjoyed Jof Davies’ portrayal of hotel-boy Nick, matter-of-factly demanding money for the steamy photos he took of Mrs Prentice the previous night; and whereas Miss Shepherd could almost pass for a bell-hop on a dark night, there’s no way you could ever think Mr Davies could be mistaken for a female secretary; well, not in that dress anyway. But, then, that’s all part of the fun.

Michael GravesIt’s an ambitious play, with a lot of onstage shenanigans, and everyone gave it a good stab, and you can’t ask for more than that. Great fun, if not for all the family, then for everyone who’s ever fancied a little hows-your-father when they shouldn’t. On until Saturday 4th June!

Review – September in the Rain, White Cobra Productions, Playhouse, Northampton, 29th September 2015

September in the RainHaving discovered White Cobra Productions back in April when we saw their jolly Shakespeare Revue, I was keen to see what other tricks they had up their sleeve. For their current show, September in the Rain, they have left behind the world of song and dance and gone for a traditional two-hander play, written by John Godber. It was first produced back in 1983, and is largely drawn on and inspired by his own grandparents’ lives, and their annual sojourn to Blackpool for their holidays. I usually associate John Godber with more rough and ready settings, like Bouncers or Up ‘n’ Under, so to discover this rather gentle and Alan Bennett-esque play was a very pleasant surprise.

White CobraWe meet Liz and Jack, an elderly Yorkshire couple, preparing to go on their week’s trip to Blackpool, and, as they reminisce about previous holidays, the play takes us back to their younger days so that we can relive many of their experiences with them. The play becomes an amalgamation of several holidays, which, whilst there are occasional sunny days, mainly reflect several Septembers in the rain (hence the title). We see their fondness for particular guest houses; fish and chip suppers (mainly takeaway, occasionally the treat of an eat-in), dealing with the donkeys on the beach; memories of their children doing daft things; and it’s all interlaced with an elaborate sequence of bickering that acts as a cement to their entire relationship.

Blackpool TowerThis is one of those plays which triggers your mind and memory into recollections of events in your own childhood. We never used to go to Blackpool as a kid (far too Northern for the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s liking) but we would go to Devon, or Bournemouth, or Ramsgate; and, as Liz and Jack encourage their kids to be the first to spot the Blackpool tower from the car, we always had the race to see who could be first to spot the sea. I remember the long walks along the beaches; my dad in a deckchair barely taking off his tie; tickets for the end of the pier show; sharing tables with other holidaymakers (sometimes nice, sometimes tedious); staying up late to watch Match of the Day in the guest house’s TV lounge – televisions in your room were just unheard of! Just as Liz and Jack’s daughter Pam sings at a seaside talent show, I remember being entered for the Butlins Bognor Picture of Health contest, amongst dozens of others equally bored children. I didn’t win. I also remember being forced to wear those ghastly pacamacs that Liz and Jack sport because of the inevitable downpours associated with the English summertime. I quake with embarrassment at the memory of being caught out in the rain on the Isle of Wight one year with no rain hat (shock horror) and the only alternative the Dowager could find for me in the local shops was…. a tea cosy. I spent the afternoon with this ****ing tea cosy on my head in case I caught a cold. I should have phoned Childline.

Kate BillinghamI don’t think Liz and Jack would have been that cruel to their kids – instead they would have saved their verbal cruelty for each other. I doubt if there would be anyone who’d been on a family holiday as a kid who hadn’t witnessed their parents rip each other to shreds like Liz and Jack do. Because that generation worked really hard, and laboriously, and probably only had one week off a year, the pressure to enjoy themselves on the annual summer holiday was really intense. There’d be months and months of happy expectation, and then it would be all over in a flash. And of course holidays are never that perfect, and travel plans always go amiss somewhere along the line. So while Jack takes a relaxed and practical view of the travel plans, Liz is frantic with packing, traffic, the weather, the destination, and every minutiae in between. Once they reached Blackpool, it would be Jack’s turn to get agitated when things go wrong – the room too small, the waiter too handsome, the donkey too flea-ridden. Hs method of complaining would be virtual fisticuffs, much to the embarrassment of Liz who would far sooner see it out in silence – until she got Jack on her own, that is.

Richard JordanIt’s a very funny, charming and nostalgic play, and you feel Kate Billingham and Richard Jordan get right to the heart of their characters. There’s something of the Olivia Colman in Kate Billingham’s portrayal of a woman who normally manages to stay just on the safe side of high anxiety but will erupt when pushed. We both loved how you could see how one little word or action would slowly but inexorably turn her from Seaside Sunshine to Tyrantosaurus Rex. I also really enjoyed her voice and characterisation for their dining companion, all toothily smirking and snaffling the last biscuit. Richard Jordan too was perfect as the taciturn Jack, in his old age rarely needing to add more to a conversation than a considered “aye” or a risky “nay”, grimacing at the world going by, not miserably, just elderly. There were some lovely exchanges between the two – for example, an excruciatingly funny scene in the deckchairs when Liz kept on insisting that Jack took various clothes off to enjoy the sun whilst he was perfectly happy minding his own business fully clad – she would have tried the legendary patience of a saint. There’s another great scene where Liz’s travel anxiety causes a car accident – I’m pretty sure Mrs Chrisparkle recognised something from her own childhood there; a memorable moment where Jack gets his own back at Liz from the top of the Blackpool Tower; and their final scene where they go back into the pub for one last drink is very heart-warming.

DonkeyIt’s all neatly and simply staged, with just a few chairs, props and sound effects to awaken, in the audience’s mind, their own childhood holiday memories, both affectionate and otherwise. The backdrop slides that revealed different aspects of and locations around Blackpool weren’t really necessary as our imagination did all that work for us – although I did like the image of the Ford Popular. A very charming and funny performance of a very moving and endearing play, it’s on at the cosy and intimate Playhouse theatre in Northampton until Saturday 3rd October, and then has some touring dates later in October and November which you can find here. Definitely worth catching!