Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Derngate, Northampton, 5th October 2017

Richard Alston Dance CompanyIt feels like I’ve been watching the Richard Alston Dance Company every year since Diaghilev was a nipper. It’s something I always actively look forward to, and it never fails to make me smile, laugh, go “wow!” or simply admire the quality and commitment of the dancers and choreography. Other contemporary dance companies seem to come and go through the years, but Richard Alston and his happy crew are as constant as the northern star.

What Happens in the SilenceThis year’s programme has one dance that premiered only a couple of weeks ago, another that’s a year old, and another that’s an old favourite, returned to the repertoire after a decade in the filing cabinet. But we started with a curtain-raiser: What Happens in the Silence, a dance specially choreographed by Ihsaan de Banya and Laura Gibson as the final part of a four-month project between Two Thirds Sky and RADC. Twenty local young dancers took to the stage to perform this incredibly exciting, physical rollercoaster of a dance, showing ability and maturity way beyond their years. It absolutely deserved its place on that stage and it was a privilege to see its world premiere! This must have been a wonderful opportunity for the young dancers and I hope that many of them go on to have great dancing futures. The dance itself should also have a life beyond these two nights, as it crackles like electricity.

Richard AlstonOur first Richard Alston dance was Carnaval, and if my maths ‘O’ level doesn’t let me down, this was just its third public performance. The setting is a party where the composer Robert Schumann, accompanied by his wife-to-be Clara, are guests. Schumann had mental health problems, and as a coping mechanism he identified that he had two separate sides to his personality; Florestan, his fierce and wild side, and Eusebius, his calm and reflective side. So in Carnaval, two dancers play the interdependent aspects of Schumann whilst Clara has to manage both of them. During the course of the dance, Eusebius has to calm the aggravated Florestan in order to soothe the atmosphere with Clara; at the end, all three dance together in harmony.

lets jumpVisually this provides a rather amusing portrayal of a menage à trois, while the graceful dancing guests at the masked ball look on at these two men vying for Clara’s attention. Do they see Clara with two lovers, or with one troubled one? That’s part of the intrigue. The music, unsurprisingly, is Schumann’s Carnaval, a tempestuous solo played with expressive attack on the grand piano by Jason Ridgway. The dancers are clad in appropriately contrasting and complementary shades of grey and the whole piece looks both elegant and stormy. Nicholas Bodych brilliantly conveys the unpredictability and passion of Florestan, whilst Liam Riddick gives a typically immaculate performance of serenity under pressure as Eusebius. Elly Braund is superb as the interconnecting Clara, reflecting the various styles of her difficult paramour. I thought it was a beautiful and powerful piece and a great new addition to the repertoire.

ChaconyNext up was Chacony. Where the protagonist in Carnaval had two parts to his personality, this dance is also divided – by two separate musical chaconnes. The first is by Purcell, reflected by Restoration red frock coats and courtly charm, the other by Britten, in post-WW2 austerity and angst; riches to rags, one might say. The first part takes a very formal and charming approach to elegant dancing; the second becomes much more contemporary in feel, full of expression and sadness, but with a hope for something better to come. It’s a fascinating piece, as two very different sets of emotion are produced from two contrasting versions of the same musical structure. All the dancers were on absolutely top form and the choreography provides plenty of opportunities for them to shine individually and also work together superbly.

Gypsy MixtureThe final piece was the resurrection of Gypsy Mixture, which we’d seen twice before back in 2004 and 2007, in the days when Jon Goddard and Martin Lawrance were the stars of the company. The Electric Gypsyland music to this dance is irresistible, and the dancers sway and gyrate to its rhythms and eccentricities with unpredictable delight. Some of those male hip actions and bottom tremblings certainly got the young female dance fans in the front rows whooping with appreciation; because of the nature of this particular dance, that response was perfectly acceptable! The combinations of the dancers worked extremely well in this piece, with Liam Riddick and Monique Jonas providing the ultimate in style, and Nicholas Bodych and Jennifer Hayes nailing it with chic cheek. Jam packed with warmth and fun, everyone created a truly feelgood end to the evening.

RADC 2017The company’s autumn tour has one more night here in Northampton before going on to Brighton, Truro, Bromley and finishing in Glasgow on 23rd November. If you’re looking for creative and eloquent choreography performed with superb technique and genuine love for their art, you can do no better than this company. Already looking forward to next year!

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2016

Richard Alston Dance CompanyIf it’s October, it must be Richard Alston! This marks the (wait for it) 14th time we’ve seen them tour, the first being back in 1998. When you follow a company like this over the years, you get the privilege of seeing the tentative first steps of the new recruits; how the best of them blossom into world class dancers; then the slightly older years, when their influence is more in their presence and experience than in their athleticism; with finally a move maybe into choreography or another part of the business. It’s like watching the new generations of an ever-developing family. Every time we see them it’s like a coming home party.

Rejoice in the LambFor the first night in Northampton, we had one very new, one quite new, one newly revised and one not-new-but-still-fresh dance making up the programme. The first piece was the only one we’d seen before, Rejoice in the Lamb, which the company brought here in 2014. It’s the strangely wacky story of the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, who had a tendency towards religious persecution mania, would accost strangers in the street into praying with him, was later confined to an asylum, and was taken seriously only by his cat Jeoffry. Britten’s music accentuates the religious and devotional aspects; Alston’s choreography is elegant and crisp and not without its comic highlights. There are several sequences when you forget to try to interpret what you see, but just get carried away by its beauty and flow. Just as when we saw it two years ago, there’s a truly authoritative central performance by Nicholas Bodych as the misguided poet. The company is just back from having performed this in New York and I think maybe its having experienced the metropolitan madness gave it just a little extra zing this time around. A beguiling start to the evening.

Isthmus RemixAfter a pause we had the brief but high impact Isthmus Remix, Richard Alston’s revision of a duet he made in 2013. Clad in multi-coloured tabards, giving the impression perhaps of being on rival school sports teams, the dancers move to the spiky rhythms of Jo Kondo’s Isthmus, weaving in and out of relationships with each other in a state of borderline aggression. The dancers’ arms are outstretched above and to the side to occupy the biggest space possible around their bodies, which for me created a sense of a classical position gone slightly skew-whiff. It’s a truly ensemble piece and it looked stunning.

TangentOur next piece was as new as it’s possible to be without being a premiere – Martin Lawrance’s Tangent receiving only its second public performance. It’s inspired – at a distance – by the Argentine Tango but there’s nothing Strictly about this routine. The piano arrangement, played to tremendous effect by Jason Ridgway, lends a huge amount of elegance and refinement to the depiction of four couples’ relationships as seen through different seasons of the year. What I really loved here was the balance between power and control in both the actual physical dancing and also in the interactions between the individuals. Oihana Vesga Bujan and Liam Riddick in particular formed an astonishing partnership for their own duet and Nancy Nerantzi was simply stunning throughout. It was breathtaking to see how the dancers occupied the entire space of the Derngate stage for the Spring finale; how can anyone cover that much distance with such apparent ease? That, gentle reader, is why they are the dancers and I’m not. Also a word of appreciation for Jeffrey Rogador’s fantastic costumes; the colours of the dresses were just amazing – in particular Miss Nerantzi’s wow-factor Tequila Sunrise outfit; the hard-edged black semi-robotic costumes of the men made a brilliant contrast. For me that was the dance of the night.

Italian in MadridThe programme concluded with Richard Alston’s An Italian in Madrid, a two-act mini-masterpiece that tells the side by side story of Domenico Scarlatti’s tutelage of the young Princess Maria Barbara, who takes him to Spain, where he creates his sonatas with an Andalusian influence; and her encounter with Prince Ferdinand of the Asturias who seeks her hand in marriage under the distant eye and musical watch of the composer. It’s an absolutely beautiful dance simply to watch and admire, with effective, clear story-telling through the choreography, superbly atmospheric Baroque music and costume (I loved the accordion arrangements) and the chance for a few stand-out performers to give some crowd-pleasing solos. For this piece, the company has been joined by BBC Young Dancer An-italian-in-madridfinalist from 2015, Vidya Patel. She is an expert in the art of Kathak, and her contributions to the piece so beautifully blend that traditional Indian style with western contemporary dance, giving her character in this piece a thoroughly exotic edge. She has outstanding stage presence, performs her solos for the Prince with verve and grace and is one of those dancers you can’t take your eyes off! So there would be no one more technically spot-on than Liam Riddick to dance the role of the Prince, with his fantastic show-off skills and thrills, to impress the Princess. It goes without saying that both their solos received rapturously appreciative applause. Exquisitely beautiful, tremendous artistry; we loved it.

Liam Riddick and Vidya PatelThe company has one more night in Northampton (tonight – 5th October, the town loves having you!) then the tour continues to Brighton, Snape Maltings, Glasgow, Dartford and Woking. The company are always a complete pleasure to watch and my admiration for their athleticism and grace knows no bounds. Top quality contemporary dance in a nutshell.

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2015

Richard Alston Dance CompanyHaving discovered the joys of live theatre at the age of seven, and opera at fifteen, I came to dance relatively late at the age of nineteen. None of my friends or family had the remotest interest in it. I had always admired the concept of it enormously, but for some erroneous reason thought that it was just something that wasn’t for me. I even remember enjoying contemporary dance (although certainly not classical ballet) on TV arts programmes as a younger teenager. But it wasn’t until I saw Ballet Rambert in 1982 performing Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances that I was hooked. That was when I realised – and I still believe this today – that Dance Done Well is the finest thing you can witness on a stage. It has the power to communicate most directly strong emotions whether it be with elegance and clarity or raw savagery. Dance Done Poorly on the other hand is one of the most woeful things you can witness on a stage. But that’s another matter, and you won’t find it here.

Richard AlstonLooking back at that Rambert programme from 1982, another piece on the menu was Night Music, choreographed by a certain Richard Alston. Ignorant me didn’t know who he was at the time, and I have to confess I have no memory whatsoever of the dance. Nevertheless, I do remember his name cropping up very frequently over the years and it was in 1997 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the Richard Alston Dance Company for the first time. By my estimate, the show we saw last night will have been our 15th time of seeing the company, not bad for what is actually their 21st season.

StrongholdThere was a pre-show talk, where Mr Alston spoke about the pieces and explained how they were created and what they are all about. However, as usual, we didn’t get to the theatre in time for that, so the considerations that follow in the paragraphs below about the individual dances come purely from my own reactions to what I saw on stage and what I have read in the programme and online. And if I get it wrong, sue me. (Please don’t.)

Ihsaan de BanyaThe programme started with Stronghold, a new work choreographed by Martin Lawrance, that only premiered last week at Brighton. It’s set to music by Julia Wolfe, scored to 8 double basses, and they make a thoroughly overwhelming sound; sometimes reassuring, but mainly harsh and disconcerting, with a growing sense of menace throughout. You can define Stronghold in many ways. The programme gives you some suggestions: “A fortress, a protected place, an area dominated by a particular group, a place of survival or refuge”. There’s also the play on words, with “strong hold”, which is certainly what the dancers have to do to each other, and the strong hold that a fine piece of dance can have over the hearts and minds of its audience.

Nicholas BodychI found the dance instantly captivating, showing off the athleticism of the dancers, full of high kicks and spins, constantly breaking off into subgroups and switching around the numbers and the partnerships. First one dancer will appear to take control of the group, then another, then patterns of other dancers will emerge, and it all combines in a kind of organised mayhem. You can see there are power strategies being played, changing relationships, dancers influencing each other on which move to make next. It’s all very fast and dynamic, and full of individual highlights. There is a very exciting moment, which only lasts about three seconds,Elly Braundwhen the five guys all suddenly appear at once, spinning constantly and symmetrically into the centre of the stage – that had tremendous visual impact. There was a particularly beautiful duet between Elly Braund and Nicholas Bodych where she just glides onto him and envelops him with some very sensual moves. There’s also some brilliant solo work from Ihsaan de Banya, whom I feel has developed into a world class dancer. He seems to have come to some sort of deal with Sir Isaac Newton in that when he leaps or is lifted in the air, he defies the law of gravity and seems to stay up there for ages – how does he do it? It’s a very rewarding and intensely intriguing dance.

Jennifer HayesAfter the first interval we saw Espresso Vivace – a world premiere no less; presumably so new that there isn’t a description of it in the programme. It’s a work for two dancers, choreographed by Richard Alston to two sonatas by Scarlatti – played, rather impishly, on the accordion; baroque by squeezebox, you might say. The arrangement gives it a delicate sense of fun which is perfectly reflected by the dancers, Jennifer Hayes and Ihsaan de Banya, both on fine form. It’s light, frothy and courtly; a little bit like a dance version of a very successful first date.

MazurAfter the briefest of pauses – how quickly and silently they moved the piano into place – came Mazur, choreographed by Richard Alston and first performed in June. The Mazur of the title refers to the Polish mazurka music which accompanies it, composed by Chopin and played live on stage on the piano by Jason Ridgway. This is a really elegant and gentlemanly dance performed by Liam Riddick and Nicholas Bodych. In smart suit trousers and black velvet waistcoats, more Mazurtheir dance suggests agreement between friends who share the same feelings about the Mazurkas and, by extension, the homeland to which they can no longer return. But by dancing side by side, and separately, and finally together, you sense there is a meeting of minds (and just possibly, bodies) in a very refined, emotionally reserved and stoic, but nevertheless expressive way. Mrs C described it as contemporary dance à la Downton Abbey. It’s a stunning piece, performed exquisitely by two of the country’s most accomplished dancers.

NomadicThe final dance of the evening – the slot traditionally reserved for “crowd pleaser” – was Nomadic, first performed in January this year and choreographed by Richard Alston and Ajani Johnson-Goffe. The curtain rises to reveal four female dancers, ostensibly in their jim-jams ready for a sleepover, to the very rhythmic and vibrant sound of the Shukar Collective – it’s music that is very hard to define, but it really pulsates and is the kind of sound it’s impossible not to dance to. Nomadic is a piece into which the entire company throws themselves, as the music demands the need and desire for movement, Nomadic leapswhether that’s of the nomadic kind or simply a physical reaction to the beat. The music itself is, I think, a bit “Marmite” – I loved it, Mrs C found it slightly wearisome – but the mix of “classic” contemporary dance with hip-hop street choreography provides some really original and entertaining moves that I would guess both challenge and satisfy the dancers’ desire to create something exciting and new. I thought it was an astonishing piece, full of excitement, humour, drive and vigour, danced with tremendous commitment and I really didn’t want it to end.

Liam RiddickThe Richard Alston Dance Company remains one of the finest exponents of contemporary dance and this is a great programme that will lift your spirits, set your brain racing and fill you with admiration. After Northampton, they have five more dates touring in Autumn – at Edinburgh, Truro, Yeovil, Shrewsbury and Richmond. A must-see!

Coming Soon – Richard Alston Dance Company 2015 Tour

NomadicHello gentle reader! Just wanted to take a quick opportunity to give you the heads up that the wonderful Richard Alston Dance Company are heading our way – they’re at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton this Tuesday and Wednesday, the 20th and 21st October. We go to see them every year and it’s always an annual highlight of our cultural year. There’s something about the understanding between dancers and choreographer, and between the dancers themselves, that creates dance magic on stage. For this programme they’re performing three dances, Stronghold, Mazur and Nomadic, all of which are new to me; and even the titles themselves are fascinating and arouse your curiosity as to what they might be about.

StrongholdStronghold is a new piece choreographed by Martin Lawrance, which actually only opened last week at Brighton, so it’s the dance equivalent of hot off the press. It’s set to music by Julia Wolfe, scored to 8 double basses – which I guess will sound and feel overwhelmingly enveloping, a great mix of velvety relaxation and harsh stabbing strings. The piece features all ten dancers of the company, so I expect we’ll get a wonderful range of attitudes and styles, a clever juxtaposition of group work and individual characterisation. There’s actually a promotional video which gives you a hint of what it will look and sound like on stage – and I confess, I’m hooked! Really looking forward to it.

MazurMazur, the second piece, is choreographed by Richard Alston; the unusual name refers to the Polish mazurka music which accompanies it, composed by Chopin and played live on stage by Jason Ridgway. It’s about two friends who express what they love and what they have lost – just as in the 19th century Chopin loved Poland, a country to which he could not return. But it’s not just about a lost homeland, it’s also about personal love and loss. Richard Alston created it together with Liam Riddick, one of the country’s finest dancers, and Jonathan Goddard, whose work with the company and with Rambert I have admired for many years. The performance will be by Mr Riddick and the excellent Nicholas Bodych and I reckon this is going to be cracking!

Nomadic leapsThe final piece, Nomadic, has been co-choreographed by Richard Alston and Ajani Johnson-Goffe, bringing some hip-hop influence to the world of contemporary dance. The piece is described as a combination of “Asian-influenced, traditional Romani singing with the toughness of an urban beat”. Its vision is to create a dance that reflects both the nomadism of the Roma and of desert tribes – sounds intriguing!

If you’ve seen Richard Alston Dance Company before you’ll know that they never miss a trick to entrance, entertain or challenge you. But if you’re new to the world of contemporary dance, this would be a great place to start. Why not come along to the Royal and Derngate this Tuesday or Wednesday to see for yourself? There are also some other dates still to come on their tour: Edinburgh on 24th October, Truro on 3rd November, Yeovil on 5th November, Shrewsbury on 10th November and Richmond on 19th November. Can’t wait!

Review of the year 2014 – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again our esteemed panel of one has met to consider all the wonderful shows we’ve seen in the previous year so that we can distribute plaudits to the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! Actors, directors and producers, musicians, dancers and entertainers have all striven to make it to the 2014 Chrisparkle Awards short list, which this year relates to shows I have seen and blogged between 17th January 2014 and 11th January 2015. There’s lots to get through, so let’s start!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw six dance productions last year, all of which I remember with much admiration and affection, from which I have struggled to whittle down to a shortlist of four. And here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the powerful and hard-hitting dance version by Matthew Bourne of Lord of the Flies, which we saw in May at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

In 2nd place, the marvellously inventive, comic and moving modern dance drama, Drunk, by Drew McOnie’s McOnie Company, which I saw at the Leicester Curve in January and again at the Bridewell Theatre in February.

In 1st place, a company absolutely at the peak of its powers, the stunning programme by Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Night with the Stars gala concert, by the Worthing Symphony Orchestra aka the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, with soloists Julian Bliss and Martin James Bartlett at the Derngate, in October.

In 2nd place, John Williams plays Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, plus Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in June.

In 1st place, Mozart’s Requiem, together with Alexandra Dariescu’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the RPO at the Derngate in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, the amazingly entertaining and funny two hours of magic in Pete Firman’s Trickster show, at the Royal, Northampton, in November.

In 1st place, and I think I have categorised this correctly because you can’t call it either a play or a musical, but it is devastatingly funny, Forbidden Broadway, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

It was a very good year for seeing big star name stand-up comedians this year – we saw fifteen of them! Only a couple disappointed, so it’s been very hard to whittle down to a final five; but here goes:

In 5th place, Russell Brand in his Messiah Complex tour, at the Derngate in April.

In 4th place, John Bishop’s Work in Progress show at the Royal, in June.

In 3rd place, Paul Chowdhry’s PC’s World at the Royal, in October.

In 2nd place, Trevor Noah in his “The Racist” tour, also at the Royal, in January.

In 1st place, Russell Kane in his Smallness tour show at the Warwick Arts Centre in February.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Always a hotly contested award; Of the thirty-three comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year thirteen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the Plusnet man on the adverts, who cornered Mrs Chrisparkle and I into telling the entire audience how we met, Craig Murray (12th September)

In 4th place, a comedian whose made-up character of Troy Hawke reminded us of a filthy Clark Gable, Milo McCabe (26th September)

In 3rd place, the commanding, intelligent and ludicrous material of Brendan Dempsey (10th October)

In 2nd place, local lad the razor sharp Andrew Bird (16th May)

In 1st place, someone who took control of a baying audience in the funniest and most inventive way Russell Hicks (11th April).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had fifteen to choose from. It was very tough indeed to pick between the top three, but somehow I did it. Here goes:

In 5th place, the ebullient and thoroughly enjoyable Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 4th place, the lively and inventive story of The Kinks in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre in December.

In 3rd place, the daring and emotional The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

In 2nd place, the stylish and hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, the stunning revival of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision here as it involves comparing uproarious comedy with searing drama; but somehow I chose a final five from the nine contenders:

In 5th place, Alan Ayckbourn’s thought-provoking and very funny Arrivals and Departures, at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 4th place, the sombre and intense Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

In 3rd place, the moving and beautiful Regeneration, at the Royal in September.

In 2nd place, the laugh-until-your-trousers-are-wet Play That Goes Wrong at the Royal in May.

In 1st place, the claustrophobic, immaculately staged and haunting The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Thirteen made the shortlist, easy to sort out a top nine, but really hard to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the delightful Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 4th place, the star-vehicle for Angela Lansbury but a strong production too of Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud in April.

In 3rd place, the atmospheric and brutal Dealer’s Choice at the Royal in June.

In 2nd place, the powerful yet funny Translations at the Sheffield Crucible in March.

In 1st place, the stunning, all-encompassing Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

Brief pause to consider the turkey of the year – there were plenty of candidates this year, but in the end I plumped for the tedium-fest that was Wonderful Tennessee at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in March.

Best play – Edinburgh

In the first of three new awards, this category is for the best play we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe. It could be a comedy or a serious play, new or revival, grand scale or all perched on a couch. There were five serious contenders, and very tight at the top between two plays, but in the end I am awarding this new Chrisparkle award to Trainspotting performed by In Your Face Theatre at the Hill Street Drama Lodge.

Best entertainment – Edinburgh

The second new award is for the best show in Edinburgh that wasn’t a play – so it could be a musical, a review, comedy stand-up, magic, dance, you name it. And the winner is Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho at the Assembly George Square Gardens.

Best film

The last of the three new awards is for the best film I’ve seen all year, no matter what its subject matter. Twelve Years a Slave and The Imitation Game came close, but I’m giving it to Pride.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Ten contenders in the shortlist, but the top four were very easy to identify:

In 4th place, Jodie Prenger’s’s spirited Jane in Calamity Jane at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, the amazingly versatile and surely soon to be a star Debbie Kurup in Anything Goes at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2015.

In 2nd place, the wonderfully funny and sad performance by Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 1st place, probably the strongest central performance by any performer in a musical ever, the extraordinary Imelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again ten fine performances in the shortlist, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, for his sheer joie de vivre, the dynamic George McGuire for his role as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter in December.

In 4th place, Alexander Hanson’s strangely vulnerable title character in Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre in February.

In 3rd place, Paul Michael Glaser’s funny, realistic and sincere Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Derngate in April.

In 2nd place, Robert Lindsay for his sheer style and panache in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, Brandon Victor Dixon’s stunning performance as the principled, tragic Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Twelve in the shortlist, but a relatively easy final three:

In 3rd place a wonderful comic tour de force from Sara Crowe in Fallen Angels at the Royal in February.

In 2nd place, the emotional but still very funny performance by Caroline Quentin in Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 1st place, the strong, dignified performance by Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Twenty-two contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Aaron Neil for his hilarious portrayal of the useless police commissioner in Great Britain at the Lyttelton, National Theatre in July.

In 4th place, Rupert Everett still on amazing form as Salieri in Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

In 3rd place, Kim Wall for his brilliant performance as the kindly Barry in Arrivals and Departures at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 2nd place (or maybe 1st), William Gaminara as Paul in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

In 1st place (or maybe 2nd), Damien Molony as Dan also in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

Theatre of the Year.

A new winner this year. For a remarkably strong programme, comfortable welcoming theatres, and a fantastically improved dining experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year award goes to the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre, Chichester, with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and the Menier Chocolate Factory, close behind.

It’s been a great year – and thanks to you gentle reader for accompanying me on the trip. I hope we have another fantastic year of theatre to enjoy together in 2015!

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2014

Richard Alston Dance CompanyI firmly believe that dance, when done well, is the most eloquent form of art that can exist on a stage. It’s also the case that when it’s done poorly, it can be one of the most excruciating experiences. Not that that could ever be the case with the Richard Alston Dance Company, whose annual visit is one of the few diary dates that we would never miss. We’ve followed the company for donkeys’ years now and each time they come they always deliver something spectacular. Whether it be the stunning dancing of the young talented company members or the stirring choreography produced by Messrs Alston and Lawrance, we sit in awe and appreciation of their extraordinary skills. Last night’s programme was no different and was as varied and as exciting as you could ever wish from a contemporary dance company. The overall standard of performance was astounding.

Nicholas BodychThe first piece was Rejoice in the Lamb; not, as Mrs Chrisparkle suggested, what you say when your Sunday Roast finally arrives, but a beautiful, elegant dance choreographed by Richard Alston to a moving cantata by Benjamin Britten. It’s based on an 18th century poem by Christopher Smart who used to pounce on people in the street to get them to pray with him. Nicholas Bodych gives a wonderful central performance as the enthusiastic poet with a penchant for religious mania. Some moments make you smile, but mostly you come away with a distinct feeling of prayer and spirituality to the whole piece, definitely helped by Britten’s remarkable music. The interaction between the dancers is constantly changing and I recognised moments of strength, care and support as well as scenes of enmity and rejection. A very assured, thoughtful and refined start to the evening.

Liam RiddickAfter a pause next was Holderlin Fragments, another Alston/Britten combination inspired by the work of a poet, this time the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin. Six fragments of his work are set to a song-cycle by Britten and accompanied by the dancers showing incredible agility and forming terrific angles with their bodies. The ladies are presented in light, flowing, elegant dresses but the guys appear to have been clad courtesy of the H&M loungewear department, which made for an interesting visual juxtaposition. All the dancers gave strong, watchable performances but I was particularly impressed with the energy and artistry of Ihsaan de Banya in this piece.

Nancy Nerantzi and Liam RiddickOften the middle dance in a contemporary dance programme is what I term the “difficult” one – harder to understand, more cerebral than physical, the worthy result of an ambitious project that was meant to make you think, and if the enjoyment of the dance suffers as a result, then so be it. Not this time. Burning, the new dance by Martin Lawrance, premiered only last week in Edinburgh, is the stuff that dreams are made on. It takes as its subject Franz Liszt, in his persona as superstar sex symbol, who had all the 19th century European ladies clamouring for his every attention. One of these was the Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had two children despite the fact that she was already married, and that he continued to carry on with – shall we say – his bachelor lifestyle to his heart’s content. Eventually Marie has enough of his philandering and, despite his outrageous protestations and pleadings, dumps him and runs off (and well he deserved it).

Rejoice in the LambI loved every minute of this dance. It’s a gripping drama that unfolds with beautiful clarity and perfect story-telling and features two sensational performances from Liam Riddick and Nancy Nerantzi. Mr Riddick embodies Liszt’s charisma, vanity and flirtiness with the other girls to perfection; and when Miss Nerantzi walks on in that red dress with that look in her eye, you just know that nothing can stop the passionate affair that lies ahead. There’s a stunning love sequence when the two dance in perfect symmetry which really took my breath away. There’s no denying the fantastic rapport they have with each other, but I also really loved the scenes with Miss Nerantzi battling with the other girls who still want a piece of the action – she might as well have shouted “Back off, bitches!” with her body language and challenging expression, daring them to do something about it. Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes and Phoebe Hart bring a marvellously sensual attack to these Liszt-hungry Hungarians. I also enjoyed Nicholas Bodych and Ihsaan de Banya’s fruitless attempts to win back their unruly unfaithful wives, and the whole piece is danced to Jason Ridgway’s superb playing of Liszt’s Danse Sonata live, which gives the piece additional substance and edge. But it’s that fantastic partnership between Mr Riddick and Miss Nerantzi that will stay with me for a long time; I doubt if you could see a better couple on any dance stage at the moment. I think this is probably my favourite piece ever danced by this company (and I can remember as far back as Rainbow Bandit).

Overdrive girls in redThe final piece of the evening actually featured in their 2010 programme, Overdrive, and it’s one of those crowd-pleasing pieces with a dynamic soundtrack and exciting choreography. It weaves a wonderful crescendo of movement with blistering techno-throb that really gets under your skin. The whole company get in the act with this assault on your senses, and the demanding attention that they have to give it really pays off and rewards us with a powerful, exhilarating and athletic end to the evening.

The CompanyThis is the most consistently exceptional company performing contemporary dance that I know. After Northampton, their tour takes them to Shrewsbury, High Wycombe, Yeovil, Glasgow and – if it’s more convenient for you – New Jersey. For a fulfilling evening of top quality dance I can’t recommend them too highly. Oh – and if you want to see how to take a curtain call, no one does it with more elegance!

Review – Rambert Dance Company, Mixed Bill of Four Elements, Rooster, Dutiful Ducks and Sounddance, Sadler’s Wells, 24th May 2014

Rambert Does RoosterThe appeal of booking to see this programme by Rambert could be summed up in four words – The Return of Rooster! My fantasy contemporary dance show programme would be a night of Christopher Bruce works – in this order, Swansong, Ghost Dances and then Rooster. I can remember seeing Rooster several times, at High Wycombe and Oxford – but a trawl through my programme collection came up with just one occasion – October 1995 in Wycombe, with a fantastic cast that included Christopher Powney (now Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet School), Marie Laure Agrapart (who now has her own dance company in France, and with whom I was in love, sadly she didn’t know it), Paul Liburd (now teaching at the London Studio Centre) and Vincent Redmon (not sure what he’s doing now).

Rambert 1995There was a time – about when Mark Baldwin took over as Artistic Director – that I felt Rambert slightly lost its way. We kept faith with them, and went to see them whenever we could, but sometimes the dance skills were not as great as in the 80s and 90s. I don’t attribute this to Mr Baldwin – he’s a great choreographer and we used to love seeing his own dance company’s productions at that time. Maybe they just got the Millennium Bug. That’s when Richard Alston’s company really took over for me as being the company You Just Had To See.

Rooster 1995But I’m delighted to say that Rambert were on top form with this mixed programme of old favourites, and although there has been some criticism that Rambert are rehashing old stuff and not creating new work – which may be a justified observation – there’s no doubting that Sadler’s Wells was packed to the rafters with a very enthusiastic audience last Saturday night. The first piece was Lucinda Childs’ Four Elements, first performed by Rambert in 1990, her work rarely seen in the UK. Each of the four elements makes up each of the four sections of the dance, so I’m not quite sure why some people were so confused as to when it was all over, applauding when only a couple of the elements had been completed – cue for my pompous disapproval of people applauding too early. Mrs Chrisparkle rather appreciates it when people applaud early, as it shows that the audience are really enjoying it and can’t contain their enthusiasm. She’s much more charitable than me.

Lead Rooster 1995Four Elements is visually spectacular, with costumes representing dominos, playing cards, a skeleton and – I think – picnic blankets, reflecting similar designs in the backdrops behind the dancers. Water, the first section, had all the dancers together in a series of movements that left me in mind of Olympic gymnasts performing the Floor Exercise. The second section, Earth, had just the women dancers performing largely the same kind of movements as in the first part. The third section was Air, just men this time, randomly entering the stage from the wings individually, each with a mixed up sequence of small leaps, large leaps and skips. If the first scene was the Floor Exercise, this was the Triple Jump. It was entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t until the last scene – Fire – that the whole dance worked for me, which brought together the three previous elements combined with the dancers dancing together for some of the time, but definitely solos at the end. All in all, it was an enjoyable piece, if ever so slightly soporific to watch.

SounddanceAfter the first interval it was time for Rooster. I was really surprised to find they hadn’t scheduled it to end the evening. Performed to a soundtrack of great Rolling Stones hits, it’s a satirical look at the chauvinistic 1960s male, how he preens and panders to himself, how he mistreats women, and how he often doesn’t get the upper hand. It’s a wonderful combination of humour, colour, sex and Christopher Bruce’s inimitable choreography and it always makes me whoop with joy.

Sounddance soloThe characters aren’t named but there’s a “lead rooster” who is the first to pose slowly into place, and he seems to be in charge of the rest of the guys. He was danced by Miguel Altunaga and he is absolutely brilliant. He starts off the “Little Red Rooster” sequence and also features in some other numbers, notably “Sympathy for the Devil” at the end. Particular highlights for me were a spectacular “Paint it Black” with a fantastic performance by Dane Hurst and a fabulous trio of menacing girls danced by Hannah Rudd, Carolyn Bolton and Patricia Okenwa; a beautiful Ruby Tuesday with a very sensuous and wistful performance by Antonette Dayrit; and – always a pleasure – a superb duel/duet between Vanessa Kang and Adam Blyde (I think) in “Play with Fire”, where the lavish red boa inevitably takes on a life of its own.

Dutiful DucksChristopher Bruce has re-staged it slightly and brought the choreography up to date in a few places – I noticed the three Paint It Black girls in the finale adding a disco element to their dancing; and Dane Hurst did a bit of “shootin’ from the hip” gun action during one of his routines. Both of these were enjoyable additions. If I had any criticisms it would be that the guys who have to catch Ruby Tuesday in their arms and then toss her in the air like a pancake slightly telegraphed their moves so that they were visibly static in place to receive her long before it was necessary – a slight distraction, I felt. I also thought the performance of “Not Fade Away” was a little less manic than I remember it, which slightly reduced its impact. But these are very minor quibbles on what always has been and remains one of the most exhilarating 25 minutes of dance you can ever hope to see.

Four ElementsAnother interval took us into Dutiful Ducks, a short male solo choreographed by Richard Alston and danced superbly by Dane Hurst to a backing track of a nonsensical jumbling up of alliterative words. It’s fun – but it’s only a curtain raiser to the final substantial piece, Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance. Here we have another alienating soundtrack, a scribble of noises that partly resemble that teeth-on-edge scraping chalk on a blackboard sound, the amplified crumpling of crisp packets and a severe drain clearance problem. It’s extremely disconcerting to listen to, but the accompanying dance is as beautiful and as eloquent as you could wish for. If you removed the scribble and replaced it with, say, a Brandenburg Concerto, the dance and the music would intertwine beautifully. It’s the juxtaposition between the formal elegance of the dance and the modern racket that gives this piece great force and energy. Very crisp and accurate footwork, it showed the company at its absolute best. I would still have preferred the evening to end with Rooster though. The applause at the end of Rooster way surpassed that at the end of Sounddance. Maybe we were all Rooster fans, returned for a Rooster reunion. It kind of felt like it. Nevertheless it was a great evening of dance and we all loved it.

Four ElementsP. S. Interesting theatre etiquette issue. As we were all taking our seats at the beginning of the evening, a lady (not very tall) and a gentleman (average height) went to sit in the row in front of me and the lady to my right. The lady went to sit in front of me, the gentleman went to sit in front of the lady to my side. Their bottoms had barely touched the padding when the lady to my right interrupted them and very firmly asked them if they would swap sides so that the lady was in front of her and the gentleman was in front of me. That way she would see the stage better. The lady in front had no problem in changing sides. However, this meant that I got the bigger bloke in front of me – and as I hadn’t been party to the arrangements I got a bit narked by this. So I said “actually, I preferred it the way it was”, to which the lady to my right, who hadn’t looked at me at all yet, said “but you’re much taller so it won’t affect you”. She had no idea if I was tall or short to be honest. I said that I would bob my head around and try to see past him. As it happened, it didn’t really inconvenience me, but I did rather resent how she went about it. She should have said to the people in front, “would you mind swapping sides so that I can see better”, and then turn to me and say, “that is, if that’s ok with you?” To which I would have said, of course that was no problem. But instead she decided that she was going to saddle me with the bigger bloke and that was that. Mrs C thinks I’m starting to get very cantankerous in my old age.