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 – Russell Howard, Wonderbox, Derngate, Northampton, 14th February 2014

Russell Howard WonderboxHere’s yet another in a series of comedy gigs we’ve attended where we were the only people in the theatre not to know who the comic was. I’ve heard of Russell Howard of course, and seen that he has his “Good News” programme on BBC3, but, like most TV programmes at the moment, we’ve never seen it. Younger people I know said “Oh, Russell Howard, great!” when I told them we were seeing him; older people said “Oh, not Russell Howard!” with the complete opposite reaction. And I think it’s fair to say, judging from the average age of the attendees at the Derngate last Friday, that he definitely appeals to a much younger, and much more female, demographic than, say Russell Kane.

Which is interesting, as I think the two Russells bear many similarities if you compare the two. They’re both the same age (born 1980); they’re both quite manic on stage, incorporating a lot of physical shenanigans, although Russell Kane’s is more the nervy, pacing, balletic twirling type and Russell Howard’s is more the sexual, hip-thrusting, “bumf**k” style. They’re both naturally very funny people, who are completely at ease with suspending what they were going to talk about, in order to take whatever tangent their audience demands – something I always admire in a comedian. They both talk about how whenever you visit the next venue on your tour, the locals will always say that their hometown is rubbish. Russell Howard had tweeted in advance that he was going to be in Northampton and what would the locals recommend he does whilst here; he read out some of the responses, and the first one was “leave”. What else? They both talk about sex, a lot; and they’re both called Russell.

Russell HowardHowever, whereas Russell Kane is quite a wordsmith in his own way, Russell Howard relies much more on old fashioned straightforward, ordinary conversational language, including intensive use of the f word. There’s a degree of sophistication in some of Russell Kane’s routines that I couldn’t really identify in Russell Howard’s. This is not a complaint, and I thought they were both funny in their own way; but there was a kind of (and this is going to sound very snobbish) “lowest common denominator” element to Russell Howard’s act, exemplified perhaps by his routines about his younger brother who, all his life, has waved his willy around whenever he has got excited about something, or extensive material about his embarrassed inability to poo in public, unless he runs a tap to mask the sound. I presume by “poo in public” he means using public lavatories and not in the middle of a municipal park. Actually that was a very funny sequence, comparing how girls all go to the loo together mob-handed without the remotest sense of self-consciousness, whereas guys have very fixed toilet etiquette that must never be transgressed: “Dave, I need a sh*t, come with me mate and run a tap for me”.

Russell Howard in manic moodHe uses the concept of the running gag really well; for example early on he mentions how he and his brother nicked his mother’s phone and changed all the contact names, so that she’d find she’d missed a call from George Michael, and so on. So whenever his mother gets mentioned for the next couple of hours, there’ll always be a throwaway phone joke as an aside. This gave Mrs Chrisparkle cause to wonder why is it that comics nearly always make their mothers sound stupid in jokes? Fathers are always knowing and wise; maybe brutal, maybe laddish; but mothers are inevitably dimwits. He did mess up one running gag though – right at the end of his act he was finishing a story and then came the killer punchline – and hardly anyone laughed; and that’s because he’d forgotten to set it up about fifteen minutes earlier. His embarrassment and subsequent explaining of how it had all gone wrong was probably funnier than the original line.

Other highlights of his act included a very recognisable impersonation of a dog desperate to go on a walk, an amusing conversation when a couple broke off from engaging on a (forgive me gentle reader) blowjob because they recognised him, and the endless fun you can have as a child playing with a slinky on the stairs. He also had several pops at the English Defence League, which can only be a good thing.

Russell Howard in thoughtful moodAfter his finale had kind of fallen apart, he stood a bit helpless for a second or two until a lady shouted out, “Can I have a hug?” at which she promptly jumped up on stage and clasped him to her bosom. Well that was like opening the sluice-gates. A couple of women ran all the way from their balcony seats so they could get to the stage and have a selfie with him. Other women started clamouring noisily for a little personal attention. A rather burly sounding blokey voice called out “can I have a hug too?” Fortunately we quickly moved away from the hug-in, as I had an awful feeling it was going to degenerate into a rather tedious celebrity-fest. In fact, Mr Howard had another finale up his sleeve which was rather heart-warming and a very nice way to finish the evening.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening spent with a very funny comedian, and the packed audience absolutely loved it. Perhaps on reflection he’s not 100% our cup of tea, but he knows precisely what his audience wants and he delivers it to their complete satisfaction. He’s touring round the country until March, he’s at the Royal Albert Hall in April, then he’s off to America, Australia and New Zealand, so the man is obviously in demand!

Review – Russell Kane, Smallness, Warwick Arts Centre, 9th February 2014

Russell Kane - SmallnessRussell Kane is yet another of these BBC3-type comics with whom we’re not that familiar but thought we’d risk paying to see them live; although he was not completely new to us as he co-presented the rather good “How to Win Eurovision” show on TV last year. So we suspected we would like him, but we weren’t sure.

Omar HamdiHowever, before we got to meet Mr Kane there was a support act in the form of Omar Hamdi, a young Welsh-Egyptian comic, who, unsurprisingly, traded somewhat on his unusual background, but still had a lot of entertaining material about culture clashes and some good general observational comedy. I thought once or twice he trod a delicate line where he almost invited the audience to (as Avenue Q would have it) “be a little bit racist”; but he knew what he was doing and it was all good-natured stuff. Part of his “warm-up” job is to find out if there were any overseas members of the audience – which information would be taken up by Russell Kane after the interval and woven into his act. Sadly, we only had a Mexican and a Belgian – I think they were hoping for more. I was going to suggest Mrs Chrisparkle put her hand up but she hasn’t lived in Australia for 27 years, so I thought it might be stretching a point. Plus she would have killed me.

After Mr Hamdi’s 25 minutes, we had an ice-cream-fuelled interval (I was driving, after all) and then awaited Mr Kane. What a little powerhouse of fun and energy he is. He’s one of these comics who never stays still for a second – always pacing about, doing balletic twirls, lunging and jigging. When Michael McIntyre does that it really gets on my nerves because it looks unnatural; but when Russell Kane does it, it’s so intrinsically him that you guess he just can’t stop – it must be his body’s way of releasing some amazing amount of pent-up energy inside. In his skin tight black leggings (it’s not a great look, to be honest) he reminded me of a young Max Wall, not that he really incorporates silly walks as a part of his act, they just happen incidentally.

Not standing stillThere’s also an interesting duality to his persona. Whilst he looks and acts quite camp, and his usual speaking voice is rather soft and gentle, there is also an underlying air of ruffian to him, which surfaces when he’s imitating working-class London/Essex guys (which he does a lot). He talks a bit about his background, and that his father was a bouncer and by all accounts quite a hard man, and you can see he’s inherited streaks of that in his personality. So that soft/rough combination gives him a really fascinating edge. You sense he’s the kind of guy who is at ease talking to all people – any background, any class – which is definitely a gift when it comes to having a great rapport with the audience.

The theme of this tour is “Smallness”, although to be honest I’m not sure it’s that strict a theme, more like a general framework on to which to hang some (but not much) of his material. “What is it with us Brits and smallness?” is the question he poses. “Watch him ejaculate (his words not mine) thoughts about smallness; on keeping things small when life gets big.” I’m glad he doesn’t allow his material to be constrained just to this theme though, because his natural enthusiasm for taking a subject and running away with it makes him one of the funniest comics we’ve ever seen.

Russell KaneHe can so easily identify that moment of recognition with the comic potential of an ordinary everyday situation. For example, what other nation’s population, when they hear a glass being broken in a restaurant or bar, would deem it appropriate to shout out “W**ker!” with the appropriate hand gestures. The French? “Eet ees unlikely”. The Germans? “Vy do zay do dat?” Nope, just the Brits. The Mexican and Belgian in the audience agreed that when they go on holiday abroad and they overhear another group of Mexicans or Belgians talking, they would go up to them, introduce themselves, and have a nice holiday chat. The Brits would do the complete opposite – “oh my God, they’re British, don’t talk to them, don’t make eye contact, run away…” When you go up to an American and ask them what they think of their home town, the inevitable answer is that it’s “awesome!” (Or rather, “ossom!”) Do that to a Brit, and they’ll say “it’s sh*t”. Unless you’re in Manchester, of course. He has lots of excellent Manchester material, much of it centred on his Mancunienne fiancé and her strangulated accent.

R KaneBut it’s not only these international observations where he excels. He’s great at noticing those little things that really irritate in relationships: like Group A sleepers, who can nod off anywhere anytime, get a full ten hours and awake all refreshed and bunny-like; and Group B sleepers, who snatch a few moment here and there, toss and turn all night and wake up knackered. How many Group B sleepers are there in the audience? I put my hand up. How many of you are sleeping with a Group A sleeper? I kept it up. All manner of Group A/B couples then had a laugh at each other’s expense. Then there’s material about not being able to have sex in the morning, or not being able to have sex whilst body noises are emitting… and much more. Whilst the subject matter of his comedy is not exactly ground-breaking his delivery and accuracy of observation is absolutely top notch.

He certainly gave us good value, as he was on for very nearly two hours, and we barely stopped laughing all that time. We loved it, he’s now one of our absolute favourites. His tour goes on up and down the country until May, and I would definitely recommend him!