Category Archives: Parenting

Oh no, not snow! Review Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Oh No Not Snow - 2809

Kate Hearn as Polly. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

THERE’S a bunch of four and five-year-olds running up and down the steps in the bar area of Royal & Derngate, completely oblivious to everyone around them. The game escalates quite quickly into Slide-Down-The-Steps-On-Your-Tummy.
Oh, and they are all girls, most dressed in very sparkly dresses.
Our seven-year-old Bonnie has settled herself up onto a bar stool and is looking down on them, literally, while shaking her head: “Ah, reception kids,” she sighs, sounding more like a pensioner than her own grandparents. She’s read the blurb about the show we’re waiting to see and seen that it’s for under-fives – and she’s seven.
We’re here, Bonn and I, to see one of the Royal & Derngate’s famous ‘immersive’ shows for children. These are often linked to the Royal’s annual Christmas show and this year it’s Oh no, not snow! which references The Snow Queen, playing to rather larger audiences upstairs.
Oh No, not snow! (which will become ONNS for the purposes of word count) is being held in the Underground at R&D, an innovative space that allows directors to make sets as ‘rooms’ which the audience can walk through as part of the show.
The story has already started as the audience of kids and carers walk through to put away their coats. Sam (played by Max Gallagher) introduces himself and gets the smaller members of the audience to rip up paper to make snow.
Then his mum arrives and tells him to take his ‘friends’ (that’s us) to help tidy his bedroom.
What follows is a journey through a couple of self-contained rooms (I don’t want to spoil the surprise with too much detail, but there is a ‘wow’ moment) with the audience of parents and pre-schoolers in tow.
Director Chris Elmer-Gorry has created a delightful introduction to the fantasy world of theatre for the under-fives in ONNS, and I think it’s a real strength of R&D that they create these ‘tasters’ of theatre for the very young.

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Sam, played by Max Gallagher. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

There are moments where the tiniest tots, oblivious to the fact there is a story being told, get involved in the action, and the actors, particularly Kate Hearn as Polly, do well to manage and ad-lib around their impromptu cast members. Sometimes the children are invited to help the cast in certain tasks, and sometimes they just join in anyway, and it’s up to the skill of the performer to manage the situation without breaking the flow, as there’s already no ‘fourth wall’ of traditional theatre.
I’ve reviewed several of these immersive shows over recent years and in this case Bonnie, aged 7, was totally engrossed in the action and the story.
There are a couple of songs that went on marginally too long for some of the kids, who I watched chucking ‘snow’ in strangers faces instead. I think the age of the children, set at under 5, could go up to six or seven, but I’d also put a limit on the number of adults coming with each child, because at times it seemed that there were just too many big people in the room closely stalking their offspring, rather than sitting back and letting them join in the action with the other children.
Oh No, Not Snow runs in Derngate’s Underground until January 3, with limited tickets available from the Box Office on 01604 624811.


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Who could resist the sight of 2,000 Santas in Becket’s Park, Northampton? Sign me up!

Santa A4 Poster with Charity Logos.jpgI’ve been needing a deadline to get my lardy backside shuffling a little further than just once around Northampton’s Racecourse. What better excuse than joining several hundred people – and dogs – dressed as Father Christmas?
The Northampton Santa Run is to be held on Sunday December 13 at 10.30am, for a short 3km jog or (for those of us who plod) walk. You can enter with your kids and even enter with your dog – the aim is to raise much-needed cash for Northants-based charities.
The six charities who will benefit are the Cynthia Spencer Hospice, St John Ambulance, The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, Rotary Club of santa runmap.jpgNorthampton, The British Red Cross and Northamptonshire Health Charitable Fund.

The entry fee is £18 for adults and £8 for children and includes a Father Christmas outfit that you can take away with you and a finisher’s medal. Or you can raise even more by getting sponsorship for your run.
Organiser Chris Dolan said: “We’re hoping to see thousands of red and white bearded participants run, or walk, two laps of Becket’s Park, raising as much as possible for the six Northants charities. We’ll be doing lots of things to get people to sign up as Santas in coming days, so keep an eye out for us!”

If you sign up online you will be able to collect your Santa suit and race number from a pop-up shop in Northampton Town Centre before the race event on December 13, to avoid any queues on the day.
Anyone wishing to take part can apply online by visiting the event’s official website or for more information email

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Lunching alone at Academy Coffee Haus, Northampton


Once upon a time in the very distant past, I wrote regular restaurant reviews for the local daily paper.
We’d be allowed to claim £30 on expenses (for two, with drinks!), and always went incognito, so we’d be treated the same as any other paying member of the public.
Restaurant reviews were good ‘talkers’ for newspapers, as readers would like to share their opinions, especially once the Internet arrived and made commenting on stories far easier.
Anyway, in my reviewing days, I’d sometimes take Bloke, father of my children and fellow journo, who unfortunately considered food reviewing an almighty pain in the arse. He would prefer the Just Being A Normal Punter aspect to include Not Bloody Reviewing Everything.
Therefore my favourite restaurant reviews were with another journalist, Jess. For several years we’d use sporadic restaurant reviews as an excuse to catch up. We were both working full time, having babies and generally being rubbish at staying in touch. Restaurant reviews also meant we ate proper food rather than picking at the kids’ leftover fish fingers or eating nothing but crisps while driving from one job to another.

Reviews are not as easy as you might think. They can be utterly tedious to read if the writer insists on something along the lines of ‘we went here, we had this’ using words like ‘nice’ and ‘tasty’.
Reviews should paint a picture of the experience, even if the only picture published is a GV: a general shot of the restaurant from the outside.
They should ultimately tell your reader whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. Usually we were pretty happy with our experiences. Restaurateurs would display framed cuttings of reviews behind their tills. Sometimes they weren’t so happy: one threatened to pull their advertising from the paper because I’d said the service was slow. Another establishment, that had served us raw chicken, then served me, the editor and the newspaper group with writs claiming defamation in the review. It later transpired the place was being run by a crook, who had run out on other restaurants and debts around the UK, and he’d finally been caught.
Time moved on. Jess and I had yet more kids, our lives went in different directions, we were still good pals, but without the regular meals.
Then we met up again and made a date to meet for lunch, at Academy Coffee Haus, tucked away behind Debenhams in College Street Mews.
For once I wasn’t late, and even cycled there instead of driving (nearest parking would be in Marehold or on street on Bridge St). But Jess was poorly and couldn’t make it.
I decided to stay, and in the spirit of our previous culinary adventures, I’d review my lunch experience.
The cafe is small, it has around 30 covers, simple wooden chairs and a couple of padded benches. Ceiling fans add character and I presume some air in the summer months.
There’s a loo that is small and probably not wheelchair accessible, but which had a changing mat and emergency nappies and wipes, something I’d have appreciated when wrestling four children aged under ten around town in the past.

I had a couple of good cappuccino coffees, in a decent sized cup with a biccy on the side, and a huge chicken and sundried tomato salad, with olives and pinenuts.
I think the menu did say it came with pesto bread, but I didn’t get any, and to be honest I totally forgot about this while eating, so it clearly wasn’t needed. The chicken was well seasoned and hot, and was delicious with both fresh and sundried tomatoes, pinenuts and black olives.

Eating alone was actually a pretty sociable experience. I chatted with a young artist who had just moved back to Northampton from London after realising she just couldn’t go on simply earning money just to pay the extortionate rent. An old journo contact who now works in PR by coincidence arrived to have a coffee and cake lunch just to escape the office, and joined me for a chat too.
One waitress had to escape outside for five minutes due to an attack of the most entertaining hiccups I’ve ever heard, like a tiny puppy yelping. On another table a girl was telling her friend how desperately unhappy she was at work, and vowing to leave, while her pal tried to talk her round.
The staff were friendly but not intrusive, and my total bill came to £9.45, pretty good value for a warm and well fed couple of hours, with free WiFi.
If you’re in Northampton I’d recommended it, whether meeting friends or not. It’s far from a lonely experience.

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BBC to fund 100 reporters to “provide impartial reporting on councils and public services.”

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

IN the semi-conscious blur of an early, school-morning wake-up, I could swear I heard John Humphries tell me the BBC was going to fund a pool of 100 reporters to help local papers.

I jolted awake.

Humphries, rather than standing shouting at the end of my bed, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, being typically bombastic, appearing not to have read the story he was discussing live on air.

Media pundit Steve Hewlett filled in the gaps: The BBC, the state broadcaster, funded by taxation via your licence fee, was proposing to fund 100 reporters across the country to cover public affairs stories (that’s anything involving councils and court) and share their content with regional newspapers.

Hang on, I hear you ask, surely court and council stories are already covered by local papers; in fact, aren’t they the bread and butter of regional news? Isn’t that what every cub reporter spends their early years covering, honing their shaky shorthand and getting shouted at by angry relatives of defendants, or councillors who have opened their mouths without thinking (again)?

No. Those days are gone. In reality, apart from the papers based in bigger cities, and those who are still producing a daily print run, the chances are that your local paper (which you probably read online rather in print), will no longer send a reporter to council meetings unless there is something particularly sexy on the agenda, (and I use the word ‘sexy’ purely because it stands so uncomfortably alongside the word ‘council’).

Instead, the paper might cut-and-paste a press release written by a communications officer at the council (who probably used to work at the paper but now earns twice the salary without having to cover evenings and weekends).
Chances are, the taxpayer-funded press and communications office for your local council or police force will have more staff than the combined newsrooms of all the media outlets in the area. But I digress.

Would you, as an editor of a regional weekly paper and associated website, with one and half reporters available on a given day, 30 pages of editorial to fill and a target from management of several thousand web hits, then send a reporter to cover a council meeting or court case that may take hours to get to the interesting bit? Oh, and then give them time off in lieu for working late? Or would you use the press release version with its already-sourced quote instead and get on with the other stuff?

Similarly, you will probably have seen your local papers publish slightly out-of-date sentencing results of court cases, sent by HM Courts Service in an attempt to show they do manage to drag some wrong-uns through the archaic justice system. It’s as popular these days to trawl the lists of convictions for people you might know, as your parents would have scanned the Births, Marriages and Deaths section of the paper in its print heyday.

But is there a regular court reporter, either for a paper, a broadcaster or as a freelance, actually based inside your local magistrates or crown court? Are cases covered in full if they don’t involve rape and murder? Again, highly unlikely unless you are in London or a large city.

Many would argue that unlike in past decades, this means the Fourth Estate is failing in its duty to demonstrate democracy and justice being seen to be done. And I’d also argue that some cracking tales, the ones that inevitably crop up buried in a weighty council agenda, or during a full day spent in court, are also being missed.

And all this at a time when there is a gigantic audience, a massive thirst and an enormous platform, via smartphones and tablets, for genuinely interesting stories. Think no one is reading papers? Imagine that all the people you saw today reading smartphones were actually reading newspapers – chances are they will all have clicked at least one news site.

Anyway, back to the promised 100 new journos, armed with their sharpened pencils, ready to throw themselves into the farthest reaches of council chambers and crown courts from Carlisle to Truro,. (There are 91 Crown Courts, 330 magistrates courts and 400 odd council chambers).

In his speech today (7/9/15) BBC Director General Tony Hall (a former BBC broadcast journalist) stated: “We’ve been working with our local newspaper partners on an exciting scheme.

“Local democracy really interests me. I’ve seen for myself how important our local radio stations are, and I’m really proud of the way they serve their communities. But I now want us to go further. So, in future, The BBC would set aside licence fee funding to invest in a service that reports on councils, courts and public services. And we would make available our regional video and local audio for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations.

“In my view, that’s good for audiences, good for the industry but we look forward to hearing the views of others. Together with our partners we look forward to consulting on this scheme and adapting it as we learn from the consultation.”

Naturally, the immediate reaction about the proposal was pretty one-sided (of course it’s far easier to vent on news stories these days via the comments section, rather than having to find a pen, write a letter, buy a stamp, go to the postbox…).

The initial general reaction online could be nutshelled as follows: Why should taxpayers’ money be used to prop up large commercial media organisations who have asset stripped the newsrooms of once popular regional papers?

And this is before the big newsgroups got involved. By the afternoon they were venting via the Guardian.

In the detail of its proposal the corporation says the operation would have to be “run by the BBC” and that any news organisation, “as well as the BBC itself”, could compete to win reporting contracts.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BBC’s proposal … [is] anything other than BBC expansion into local news provision and recruitment of more BBC local journalists through the back door,” said Ashley Highfield, the vice chairman of the News Media Association and chief executive of regional publisher Johnston Press.*

John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, was equally scathing, describing the plan as a “Trojan horse” and a “further expansion of the BBC’s encroachment”.

“It’s a Trojan horse because under the guise of being helpful, the BBC would end up replacing independent local news and worse than that would replace local news agencies,” McLellan told Radio 4’s World at One. “”It means the BBC effectively replaces local newsgathering.”

*[…and former BBC employee who dreams of being DG one day, I reckon…]

Back again to my unexpected news alarm from John Humphries.

I pay my BBC licence fee and think overall we get pretty good service. But you want to save some money in your charter renewal Mr State Broadcaster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Stop putting half a dozen reporters and presenters on a story that only needs one. Stop doing expensive live OB reports in front of darkened buildings, especially Downing Street.
  • Help your regional TV reporters by pool-sharing jobs with papers or hyperlocals – your broadcasters are stretched by the huge areas they cover. Let them be journalists.
  • Stop equating the success of your local radio stations to their Facebook likes. Good stuff will be shared anyway.
  • Invest in your local stations. But let them cover features and long form investigations and stop wasting time and money repeating what the papers already do better.
  • I love BBC4, but I think a lot of it could be on BBC2. Keep the content, just move it and make room by binning all of those ridiculously expensive lifestyle programs with ‘celebrities’, especially home-makeovers and chefs (except Bake-Off, keep that). Let the commercial channels do them, where they can ‘product place’ to their heart’s content.
  • BBC3 is more important than you think and should stay as a terrestrial channel (seeing as it is the only youth channel available).
  • Get over your obsession with ‘Talent’ and hire people who know what they are doing.
  • Have fewer meetings, make quicker decisions and implement stuff faster.

Feel free to add your own, as I’m in a post-news story ramble.

Apart from being interested in this stuff as a journalist, journalism academic (I lecture in journalism to university undergraduates) and better-half of a local newspaper editor, it bothers me as a member of the public too. We should be getting more impartial coverage of public affairs. And there are some really essential stories we’re not hearing enough about.

OK, it’s a universal truth that newspaper journalists have always liked to bitch about BBC journalists (they get paid more, they nick our stuff without giving credit or links (I’m looking at you Radio 4), they actually DO talk like they are in the spoof W1A, they might be posh/public school/Oxbridge, they still get expenses, and they get better reception from punters simply by saying ‘I’m from the BBC.”

But that’s just banter. There are some really fantastic, dedicated regional BBC reporters and presenters who work their backsides off to get their programmes out for their non-Londoncentric audience and they will be wondering what this latest idea will mean for them.

The real reason Humphries woke me with a start this morning is because I’ve actually been sitting on the consultation panel between the BBC, regional publishers and hyperlocal media organisations for the past year. We’re supposed to be having a further meeting and more detailed feedback session next week.

Early on in the discussions, in the ‘blue sky thinking’ phase, I raised the idea of the state broadcaster staffing council or court in areas where court and council wasn’t already covered, and sharing content with everyone else, similar to what happens during visits involving the Royals via the ‘Royal rota pool’.

The idea was deemed too expensive to do properly, and politely shelved.

Or so I thought . . .

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Camp Bestival 2015 – early line-up announced

Camp Bestival in Dorset is the best festival if you’ve got kids, and the line-up is usually great for all ages.

One year we saw Blondie, Mark Ronson and Primal Scream in the same weekend, a high-point in our festival-going lives.

You can read reviews of previous Camp Bestivals here and here
Here’s the latest news on who will be performing in 2015. Clean Bandit, Underworld and Kaisers, plus The Cat in the Hat Live. Pretty good for starters. You can sign up now for early-bird tickets at

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Annoying things 1



Another set of headphones fails to sneak unharmed through a 40degree wash.


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Jack and the Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson coming to Northampton in July

Jack and the Flumflum Tree

Jack and the Flumflum Tree

A NEW theatre show for children comes to Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in July, based on the book by Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson.

Hot on the heels of the excellent Moominsummer Madness, Jack and the Flumflum Tree will be performed in the Underground theatre and is suitable for children aged 4-10.
Here’s the press blurb:
Another much-loved story by Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, Jack And The Flumflum Tree comes to the Underground stage at Royal & Derngate from Friday 4 to Sunday 6 July.

Jack’s Granny is sick with a bad case of the moozles. And the only cure is the fruit of the fantastic Flumflum Tree which grows on the faraway isle of Blowyernose. It’s a perilous journey, but Jack bravely sets sail, with a motley crew of only three – and a large patchwork sack that Granny has filled with an odd assortment of items from chewing-gum to tent pegs. But what use will they be against hungry sharks, a leaky boat and a thieving monkey?

The show has been devised by Bamboozle, the company behind last year’s stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Crazy Hair, and Royal & Derngate’s Christmas show for younger children, Along The Riverbank. Puppetry is by Sue Pyecroft – whose enthralling work will be familiar to anyone who saw Alice In Wonderland, Crazy Hair or Along The Riverbank – taking her cues from the book’s charming illustrations by David Roberts.

With beautiful songs, engaging puppetry and Bamboozle’s trademark multi-sensory style, Jack And The Flumflum Tree promises to enchant family audiences, including those with a learning disabled child. It is recommended for children aged 4 to 10, or for ages 7 to 14 with learning disabilities.

Jack And The Flumflum Tree comes to Royal & Derngate from Friday 4 to Sunday 6 July, with performances at 11am and 2pm daily. Tickets, priced at £7.50*, can be booked by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or online at
* A transaction fee of £2.50 applies to telephone and website bookings only. Does not apply in person, or to Groups and Friends, and is per-transaction, not per-ticket.

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Moominfab! World premiere of Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness at Royal & Derngate, Northampton


This is quite exciting. If you grew up with the Moomins – those quishy hippo-ish characters Moomintroll, Moominmama, Moominpapa and Little My – you can see them brought to life this weekend on the Royal and Derngate stage.

Using brilliant puppetry, live music and humour, Moominsummer Madness is another coup for the Northampton theatres, and is an innovative show ideal for ages four and upwards. A co-production between Royal & Derngate’s Underground Studio and London’s Polka Theatre, this world premiere is staged in the Underground Studio in Northampton from Thursday 22 May until Sunday 1 June.


The Moomins live in a fairytale land of Moomin Valley and have lots of adventures. Author Tove Jansson was a Scandinavian illustrator whose books and comic strips were eventually published all over the world, and like all good children’s literature, were a little bit surreal but based on ‘human’ scenarios. Moominsummer Madness forms part of Tove 100 – a celebration of 100 years since the birth  of one of the key artists and writers in the post-war age. Her Moomin books (written between 1945-1993) have been translated into 44 languages along with animated films and a popular television series 

Moominsummer Madness finds the Moomins aboard a floating theatre after a huge flood sweeps through the valley. Mysterious things start to happen… Why is there a door in the floor? Why does the scenery start changing? And where do Moomintroll, Little My and Snork Maiden disappear to? The only way of bringing all the family back together, it seems, is to put on a play!

Local audiences have enjoyed many hugely successful shows for children and families over the years, created by Royal & Derngate’s Associate Director Dani Parr, including Flathampton and Along the Riverbank, and now she brings that trademark flare and interactivity to popular children’s storybook characters the Moomins.

The production is co-directed by Dani and Polka Theatre’s Peter Glanville (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt), bringing together the talents of Little Angel Theatre’s celebrated puppet-maker Lyndie Wright, Bruntwood Prize-winning writer Phil Porter (Starseeker) and composer Ben Glasstone, to create another example of brilliant and inventive children’s theatre.


Moominsummer Madness can be seen in Royal & Derngate’s Underground Studio from Thursday 22 May to Sunday 1 June, before transferring to Polka Theatre in London. The first two days are exclusively for schools (tickets priced £9 each, with one ticket free with every 10 purchased). Tickets for family performances from Saturday 24 May to Sunday 1 June are £10* each. Times vary. Call Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit to check times and book tickets.

On Friday 30 May there will be the opportunity for children aged from 8 to 15 to work with a professional puppeteer to bring a puppet character to life in one of two puppet-making workshops, running from 11am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 3pm. The cost is £5 per participant and places can be booked by calling Box Office.

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The Science Museum’s Energy Show Live: An electrifying visit to the theatre, review by Matt Walsh

The Energy Show“Who wants to blow things up?”

That’s the question that powers the fun at the brilliant Energy Show which will be at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate from April 28-30.

Produced by the Science Museum Live, the show follows the adventures of futuristic students Annabella and Phil as they race against time to complete their presentation on the nine types of energy.

And that means blowing things up.

The safety goggles go on and the students conduct dangerously exciting experiments, such as setting fire to methane-filled soap bubbles or exploding hydrogen-filled balloons.

Mixing live action, computer graphics, science and Star Wars jokes, this is an enormously fun show which teaches some of the key principles of physics and chemistry and will be particularly useful for those studying at key stages two and three.

Be warned though, there are some big bangs in this show. The producers suggest it’s suitable for those aged seven and above.

I watched it with a science-mad four-year-old who was a little worried at some points as the audience shouted for ever bigger explosions.

But he left singing a familiar tune played by “lightning” created by a specially tuned Tesla Coil.

This is an inspirational, high-energy science show which delivers education and entertainment for both children and adults.

energy_show_tour_image_627x392pxThe Energy Show will be at Royal and Derngate from the 28th to the 30th of April, with shows as follows: Monday 7pm, Tuesday 11am, Wednesday 1.30pm.Tickets are £16, and available on 01604 624811 or by visiting

Matt Walsh

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Dinosaur Zoo Live, today and tomorrow(April 10-11) at Royal & Derngate


I’m sitting in 27 degree sunshine in Spain when I suddenly remember: crikey, it’s Dinosaur Zoo time.
Not in Spain,  although up to the mountains it is a little reminiscent of the land that time forgot, but back home in Northampton
We saw this brilliant and innovative puppet/human show last year, and I’d highly recommend it. You may remember the video clip doing the rounds when one of the dinosaurs accidently fell into the (more expensive) front row. No puppets or humans were injured thankfully.
Our six and ten year olds loved it, and there’s plenty of banter from the humans on stage for the grown ups too.
Tickets are pretty limited but if you can catch it now, it’s a perfect Easter treat.
Dinosaur Zoo is at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Go to for information and tickets.


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