Category Archives: Reviews

Theatre, kids’ stuff, usually

Legoland – still a poor excuse for a day out ten years on

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Ten years ago we took our sons, now aged 14 and 15, to Legoland. We left feeling cold, tired and ripped off. We tried again this week with our five and nine year olds, and I’m sorry to say nothing much has changed.
It cost the best part of £100 for two adults and the car parking. It’s only the fact that third son Billy had cut out two free kids’ tickets that stopped entry being almost £160. For day tickets.
It will be OK, we decided, our youngest two love all things Lego (Star Wars and the girly Lego friends) and they hadn’t been before. It was Easter, but it was cold, and still busy.
We started at the very short train ride down the hill, and walked to the knight’s kingdom where we knew there were two ‘ entry level’ rollercoasters, suitable for ride- phobic Bloke as well as the kids. An hour later Billy and I had been on The Dragon, a not terribly scary sit-down coaster suitable for those over a metre tall. Bloke and Bonnie were still queuing for the Dragon’s Apprentice, a much smaller ride.
Billy and I joined the queue instead for lunch in the restaurant, a very poory staffed and grubby place with oversized wooden tables run, it seems, by teenagers with no sense of urgency despite a half hour queue of families waiting for tables. I felt cross and embarrassed as there were families from overseas who must have marvelled at the British inability to run, well, the proverbial knees-up in a brewery. An expensive brewery.
We moved on to Laser Raiders where we were told the wait would be 75 minutes. Not unusual in a theme park, we’ve done Alton Towers and Drayton Manor and understand they’ve only got so many seats per ride. They do have a priority queue jump system but it was FIFTEEN QUID PER PERSON! The wait was so long I actually wrote most of this review while waiting and hoped it was worth it, as we’ve been on these shooting lasers at targets rides before. The American theme parks do these well, with the Buzz Light year and Men in Black ones really standing out for value-for-your wait. Legoland’s version was shabby and short.
With some rides still under construction (the new Duplo’ land would be too young for ours anyway) and the water rides just too damn cold in this weather, we probably didn’t have the same expereice we might had we gone later in the summer.
We bought a couple of overpriced coffees and a bucket of candyfloss and headed to queue for Atlantis, a ‘submarine’ ride which let you look at real fish in the underwater aquarium beneath, but while it was the best we went on, it was still too short for a ride with an hour-long queue.
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We bypassed the car driving and fire engine ‘experiences’ and headed back up the hill to the Star Wars exhibition, via ‘mini land’ which features a lot of very out of date models of country landmarks from around the world which included ‘old’ Wembley and Silverstone with buttons which were supposed to make cars and windmills and the like move, but they were mostly broken.
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The Star Wars area could have been so good, but instead you walked around a museum of star wars scenes in Lego, placed behind glass or certainly out of reach. After the brilliance of the Lego computer games, surely they could have been more imaginative? Even Clone Wars uber-fan Billy was underwealmed.
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We gave up another too-many quid in the shop but didn’t have to fight or bribe the kids that much to head home. Even though we had tried to be positive and give them a fun day without the older two vying for attention, they were talking more about a previous trip to Alton Towers on the way home than the place they’d just been!
Legoland is at Windsor, just off the M4. Leaving took some time as there are only two lanes to exit and some poor woman had rear-ended another car on the steep hill. Then the M1 was closed and it took three and a half hours to get home.
I don’t enjoy writing such a negative review but come-ON Legoland, you should be embarrassed how much you are charging for such a tired and old park. You have a good reputation in all your other businesses so why let this one become so dated and unwelcoming? It had very little for older kids and we were relieved not to have taken the teens. Other UK parks, just as old if not older, seem to have kept pace.
If you are thinking of a visit this Easter, for goodness sake take your own food and look for online deals or use club card vouchers, as some fellow visitors we were talking to in one if the queues did (who, by coincidence, came from Northampton). It was the first time they had visited and, as they whispered out of earshot of their three kids, it would also be their last. As all our kids have now ‘done’ Legoland, thankfully we too have no inclination to return.

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A Christmas Carol at Royal & Derngate, Northampton – Review

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Four-year-old daughter settled into her theatre seat and made a pronouncement: “Ooh, this looks a bit too scary for me.”
This was before the curtain had even gone up.
Admittedly, it was a scary black curtain, which rose to show a classic Victorian street scene – only with the added brilliance of the Royal set-makers; boxes piled on boxes, upon bookcases and grandfather clocks. All moveable mini sets which characters could climb and peer through.

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A Christmas Carol has been going down a storm at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate this year, and rightly so. I haven’t heard a bad word about 2012’s in-house offering – a welcome antidote to the giant celebrity-studded Bobby Davro/Denise Loose-women omnipanto next door in Derngate.
Pantomime it ain’t. The show sticks to the original Dickens classic story pretty religiously and that’s to its credit; there’s no soft-soaping of the Victorian urban setting here. Poverty, cold and Scrooge (played to miserly perfection by the considerably younger Sam Graham), grumbles and snarls his way around Christmas Eve like there’s no tomorrow, and of course, for him there might not be.
Cue the three ghosts – the Santa-like Andy Williams gives a show-stealing turn as the ghost of Christmas present as well as Jacob Marley – and Scrooge has to clean up his act for the sake of poor old’ Tiny Tim and the Cratchetts.
The cast are marvellous, and combined with a slick script and that mesmerising set, it’s a set of ingredients which leaves the audience feeling full and contented. Even the four-year-olds.

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If you manage to get a ticket, do try to see it before the run ends on January 6. Box office is on 01604 624811.
I can’t guarantee any celebrity spotting on the way out though. Our Bloke saw Philip Schofield as we were leaving, although none of us – bah humbug – believed him. Turns out he was watching his brother-in-law play Scrooge.

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Toksvig’s Bully Boy at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, August 2012 – review

DON’T be misled by the title of Sandi Toksvig’s mesmerising post-war drama Bully Boy, currently running at Royal & Derngate in Northampton – I’d wrongly imagined some sort of public school stuff costume piece or  a gritty exploration of modern urban state schools.

No, the education here is of the audience, taught through the story of two traumatised soldiers brought together during the investigation of a grim war crime.

Joshua Miles and Anthony Andrews, picture © Mike Eddowes

Major Oscar Hadley (Anthony Andrews), a Falklands veteran, is sent by the Army to Afghanistan’s combat-zone to investigate the death of an eight-year-old civilian boy and his mother at the hands of a group of British soldiers, nicknamed ‘the Bully Boys’.

He interviews the prime suspect; pumped-up, aggressive young soldier Eddie Clark (Joshua Miles), a 20-year-old from Burnley who signed up at 16. Eddie is immature and institutionalised, showing racist indifference to the dead locals he has been sent to protect, and fiercely defensive of his fellow ‘bully boys’ who the Major implies have blamed him for the death.

Using a stripped down set (R&D on top form as always) with lighting and sound effects that literally make you jump out of your seat, the developing relationship between the two soldiers is mesmerising and incredibly moving.

Andrews, perhaps typecast through his career as the tortured toff, is on top form in what must be both a physically and mentally exhausting production, especially for a national treasure now in his 60s.

But the play is notable for the extraordinary performance of newly graduated Joshua Miles as Eddie, rolling the character through such a series of demands both emotional and physical. He is pure squaddie from head to foot and his development of the character from hateful ignorance through to tragic victim shows great talent for a young actor.

Anthony Andrews as Major Oscar Hadley picture © Mike Eddowes

Written by comedienne and broadcasting darling Sandi Toksvig, better known for her appearances on Radio 4 and QI, Bully Boy is both deeply moving and humourous. Despite detailed research with military charities and her own partner, a psychotherapist, the story, for me, was not without faults. Several times I found myself jolted out of suspension of disbelief – “well, he’d never have spoken to him like that,” or “the Army would never have let them travel in the same vehicle”,”that’s a sports wheelchair”,  and on several occasions, “where are the bloody Military Police in all this?” The initial question of the death of a child and his mother gets forgotten as sympathies switch to the mental health of the soldiers.

Nevertheless it’s an extraordinary telling of the truth about war and its consequences, and a stark expression of the issue of the ongoing mental health of generations of forces personnel.

An excellent piece of theatre again from Royal & Derngate, Bully Boy is a completely re-staged version from the first run of the play in Southampton last year, and will continue on after its Northampton run into undoubted success in London. I highly recommend you see it while it’s here, and it’s a shame it can’t be made compulsory viewing for all secondary school children. Or just everyone.

Bully Boy runs until Saturday, September 15. Tickets can be booked now by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or visiting www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

  •  Make sure too that you put some pennies in the collection bucket for the Combat Stress charity, or text BBOY12 £5to 70070 to give an instant donation of a fiver to help veterans with wounded minds.

    Can’t help but see Anthony Andrews with rasta dreadlocks in this cover image from the programme

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Caged bird or spoilt brat? Review of Hedda Gabler – Royal & Derngate until Saturday July 29, 2012

IT was an A Level text I’d managed to dodge as a teen. But plenty of English and Drama students will have read and seen Ibsen’s depressing masterpiece Hedda Gabler.
Running at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate as the final installment in artistic director Laurie Samsom’s Festival of Chaos trilogy, this is a stark departure from the larger-than-life offerings of The Bacchae and Blood Wedding.

A new, stripped-down cast of seven take to the beautifully lit, impressive but stark stage which stays static in the stifling drawing-room of the newly-wed Hedda, nee Gabler, now Mrs Tesman, in 1890s Oslo.

We’re introduced to her puppyish dolt of a husband, Jorgen (Jack Hawkins) and the obligitory overbearing aunt (Sue Wallace) while tutting servant Berte (Janice McKenzie), makes her mark with a scattering of lines.

The sets are muted and the dialogue conventional until the malevolently bored Hedda (an astonishing performance by Emma Hamilton) appears, displaying the nonchalant rudeness of the spoiled little rich girl.

Lex Shrapnel, Matti Houghton and Emma Hamilton. pic Robert Day

Utterly frustrated by the life she’s chosen and the status of women, and jealous as hell of the relationship between her alcoholic-tortured-artist-ex Lovborg (the marvellousoly monikered Lex Shrapnel) and a timid school-friend Thea (played with utter conviction by Matti Hougton), she sarcastically bullies and belittles all around her instead of seeking the freedom she incites in others.

 

Trapped not only by the loveless marriage and financial dependence on the slimy Judge Brack (Jay Villiers), but by impending motherhood, Hedda prowls cat-like around the stage setting traps and killing any hope of happiness or redemption, while always claiming to set the dark genius of Lovborg free “with vine leaves in his hair.”

A superb cast, pale and Nordic to contrast with Hedda’s flame-haired femme fatale, create tightly-would tension throughout the two and half hours, with little relief for an audience helplessly fixated on the impending doom.

It might not sound like a fun night out, but it is brilliant, provocative and engrossing theatre. And yes, I did jump in my seat. Again.

Hedda Gabler runs at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until July 28.

 

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Planning a festi-holiday: How to festival with family and a Camp Bestival 2012 preview

INSTEAD of searching the internet for prices of lovely sunny holidays abroad, I’m Googling levelling blocks. Not nice new swimsuits or sun-lotion, but levelling blocks.

These big cheese-shaped plastic blocks stop camper vans and caravans rolling off down a hill or all the blood rushing to your head when you have to sleep in one.

And for the fifth year in a row I’ll be spending my precious family break in a field, as we’ll be holidaying in our knackered old Japanese Bongo camper van.

Are you fired up for a home Olympic holiday, or planning to jet away to avoid it all this summer?

We had considered something different for our family holiday this year, other than our usual trip to a festival. But our bank balances never stretch far enough to take six of us abroad, and our annual trip to Dorset works so well we’re doing it all over again for the fourth year on the trot.

If you have children, or even if you don’t, I heartily recommend you look at what’s on offer at www.campbestival.net even if you feel like you’ve ‘done’ every festival or can’t face camping, let alone camping with kids.

Camp Bestival is the family-friendly little sister of the September Bestival festival on the Isle of Wight. It’s held each year over the last weekend in July after the schools have broken up for summer. The venue is the specular Lulworth Castle on the Dorset coast.

It’s a great combination of live music spanning the tastes of parents and teens, with a load of extra stuff for kids including the Gruffalo, Shrek, Dick & Dom, Mr Tumble and a Wall of Death! There’s a massive skatepark, street dance and DJs, comedy and jaw-dropping jousting. And as this year it coincides with the opening of the London Olympics, there’s a silly sports theme, which means you’ll see lots of families dressed in identical sports-related dressing up outfits. You can choose whether to join in or stick to the standard shorts and wellies combo.

If like us you have children spread in age from teens to tots, the site is contained enough to allow the older ones off the leash to go feral for an afternoon, while you wander around the kids’ field watching your younger ones test out ball pits and painting tents, dressing up stands and circus skills workshops. There’s something bonkers around every corner. You can also just opt to slouch about on one of many four poster sofas dotted around the festival site, cider in hand and watch the music on various stages.

Settling in

I’m not sure I can ever get as excited about a musical line-up after last year’s dream Friday-Saturday-Sunday offering of Blondie-Mark Ronson-Primal Scream. But there’s always something you’d like, whatever age or taste, from pop to classical.

The kids have already seen acts at Camp Bestival their mates are ‘well jell’ about, including Wretch 32, Katy B, Labyrinth, Florence and the Machine, Tiny Tempah, Friendly Fires and  Calvin Harris.

Camp Bestival’s music is fabulously eclectic, and this year is no different, with everything from chart stars (Hot Chip, Stooshe, Josh Kumra, Rizzle Kicks, Delilah) to old-skool classics (Happy Mondays, Kool and The Gang, Earth Wind and Fire, Adam Ant) and the downright bonkers (Rolf Harris, The Cuban Brothers).

There’s very little you wouldn’t let your kids see (except perhaps the comedy tent where we once, accidentally, exposed our under tens to Frankie Boyle in full-flow . . .). This year’s comedy offerings include the tax-dodging Jimmy Carr, which could be a lot of fun. Rufus Hound and Andrew Maxwell are regulars too.

“Daddy, they’re singing my song”

If you are camping, rather than coming in on a day ticket, there are several options. You can simply bring a tent, or you can actually pay to have someone put one up in advance for you. You can bring a camper van or even hire a teepee, or a Yurt, a Squrt, Cloudhouses, Podpads, Bell Tents, gypsy caravans or even a massive Airstream Trailer (if you have a couple of grand to spare). If you bring a car and a tent you can hire a trolley to drag your kit from car park to camping field. Or bring your own.

Camping with kids isn’t as bad as it sounds once you’ve got used to the idea of possibly wearing the same clothes for three days straight and eating crisps for breakfast. With six of us in the family, and no posh cooking or refrigeration devices, I usually bring a camping stove, kettle, gas lamps, wind up lamps and head torches, plenty of gas canisters, a frying pan, a saucepan, and many, many tins of beans and pouches of soup as I can, plus lots of packs of tortilla wraps, and bags of fruit. Milk is UHT and in bottles with screwcap lids. That way everyone gets something to eat or a cup of tea back at the tent so we aren’t always paying the best part of £30 each meal.

You’ll need wellies and warm waterproof coats as well as thin summer layers and plimsols. The weather, believe it or lot, is tentatively predicted to be good the last week in July, but even if we are spared the rain, it can get cold at night when you are sitting watching bands or traipsing back to tents, so blankets, coats and woolly hats are worth bringing too.

We invested £50 in a big metal garden trolley last year with pneumatic tyres. We left it at the tent during the day and took it out each evening loaded with blankets, drinks bottles, packets of tissues (for the loos) and coats, and when four-year-old Bonnie got tired, she sat/slept in it. It was a workout to get it up the hill to the site each night but well worth the effort and money.

Bonnie may only be four but she’s been to five festivals and survived. One year we did bring a pram, which was just a lightweight McLaren buggy. It got battered and mucky but did the job in the days before Bonnie could walk long distances. I’d leave any heavy or expensive, non-off-road prams at home. We were relieved when our heavy travel cot wasn’t needed to contain her in the tent anymore, and now we use two blow-up Ready Beds for the smaller two and camp beds for the older boys.

The most complicated and stressful parts of festivaling with family is the packing. You’ll need less than you think, and yet probably leave something essential at home. There are general stores on site selling everything from nappies to tent pegs, so don’t panic. Get there as early as you can and give yourself time to set up an organised camp. By the Sunday or Monday you’ll be stinking and tired and won’t care which groundsheet goes in which bag, but it would be good to remember where you put them.

Mobile phone reception at Lulworth is terrible, so be prepared to give up the Smartphone for a couple of days. Make sure you have regular times and places to meet up if you should separate and remember each child has a security wristband in case the get lost.

And most of all, enjoy it! It’s not that often these days we get to spend time with our kids without distractions and worries. You’ll probably find they pal up with the kids in a neighbouring tent very quickly and you may even get on well with other grown-ups too. The Camp Bestival website has a good forum section where you’ll find advice from regular festival goers.

Festival not as exciting as my phone

When you arrive it’s worth getting a programme as soon as possible to plan what you really want to see. You won’t necessarily get to see everything and need to factor in ‘down-time’ to let you recharge, especially if you have younger children who will get tired quickly. Don’t worry if all your normal routines go out of kilter, you’re on holiday.

There are a limited number of day tickets available if you wanted to try out the festival vibe without the camping (although make sure you book any external accommodation fast as everything will be booked up).

Adult festival tickets, including camping, cost £175 (add an extra tenner if you want to camp from Thursday July  rather than Friday).

Students pay £170, teens aged 15-17 pay £110 and 11-14s £95 (all under 18s must be accompanied by an adult and camp with their families).

Anyone aged ten or under gets in for free but you MUST book a ticket for them anyway.

Reviews of previous Camp Bestival outings can be found here (2011) and here (2010)

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Stunning, sickening and a huge success – Review of the Bacchae, Northampton Festival of Chaos season

THERE were points in Royal & Derngate’s adventurous modern retelling of Euripides’ The Bacchae where I had to look down and attempt to read the program. In the dark.

For all the knowledge that we were sitting in my former employer’s old printing press watching actors in a play, the last scenes were pretty shocking. And rightly so. After all, this isn’t panto, and I’m a total wuss when it comes to horror.

The Greek tragedy tells the story of Dionysus, half-God, half human, who returns to the city of his traumatic birth to wreak havoc on the human family who dishonoured his dead mother. (There’s a considerable complicated back story we don’t hear about in the two hours without an interval, so worth doing some homework if you aren’t familiar with two and a half thousand-year-old mythology).

Amanda Wilkin in The Bacchae – Pics ©Robert Day

The staging is brave – a huge space, complete with burnt-out car – within the decaying former printing press at the Chronicle & Echo, whose editorial staff still work next door. (It was originally arranged and adapted to be staged in a working casino, but thankfully that location fell through).

It was odd for Bloke and I, who had been part of the Chron generation who actually went in and out of the press halls when they were fully operational. You could smell the newsprint and almost hear the deafening noise of the presses that once filled the space.

The set designer has used this modern location to good effect – especially as the audience is in tiered seating very close to the action with TV screens above their heads.  The hall’s upstairs offices are used to great effect and amazing musicians are hidden up there in the balcony throughout. Take a coat though – it’s pretty chilly this June.

Although the principle antagonism is centred on the male leads of the lascivious Dionysus (Ery Nzaramba) and his arrogant cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes (Liam Bergin), it’s the women who dominate the action. The brilliant ‘chorus’ of the Bacchae, a girl gang entranced by Dionysus’s message of freedom, bewitch the women of Thebes to run animalistically amok in the desert (off stage). The Bacchantes presence is particularly effective during the ‘justice’ song (and yes, I jumped).

There’s ‘light relief’ in the form of Pentheus’s grandfather Cadmus and his blind prophet pal Tiresius who camp about the stage enjoying Dionysus’s wine, but the comedy is quickly eclipsed the imposing willowy figure of Pentheus’s regal mother Agave. Enticed to abandon herself to the freedom of the desert women, she returns blood-soaked and bonkers. A jaw-dropping and draining performance by the excellent Kathryn Pogson.

There’s some relief as it’s over, not because the show isn’t good – it really is – but because there’s certainly no happy ending. And your bum will be very numb from the seating.

I was surprised to see the majority of the audience seemed to be pensioners. Not that I have anything against pensioners, heaven forbid. But I expected a more varied demographic. (I witnessed several shocked older ladies elbowing their husbands and mouthing their distaste during the ruder and sweary-er points; it was like watching embarrassing sex scenes on TV with your parents).

There are parts of the production that just didn’t work for me – the over-long TV news sequence is clichéd and unnecessary. The key scenes where Dionysus turns his ranting, despotic, misogynist cousin from city slicker into cross-dressing acolyte (and takes off his pants) had as much spark as a mini Metro engine on a cold rainy morning.

But I loved the women. And the setting, and the ambition of the thing. The cast are amazing, particularly Amanda Wilkin, Alicia Davies, Donna Berlin and Philip Cairns. And you really have to give the whole company a standing ovation for the graft they’ve put in running this draining story in rotation with Blood Wedding at the Royal, (worth seeing after The Bacchae (see review here ).

Ery Nzaramba and Liam Bergin

You really should go and see The Bacchae, regardless of your age or knowledge of theatre. You should see it because it is a unique and thoroughly entertaining experience AND IT’S IN NORTHAMPTON.

You should go. Go on, get some culture, buy some tickets now.

The Bacchae runs at the Printing Press in Earl Street, Northampton until Saturday June 30. Call Royal & Derngate on 01604 624811.

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Review of Blood Wedding – part of the Festival of Chaos at Royal & Derngate

Blood Wedding Review – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

 

Blood Wedding_Seline Hizli The Bride and Kathryn Pogson The Mother

GOODNESS I love Royal & Derngate. I can’t help it. I’ve seen those theatres going through their ups and downs of the last twenty years and fight and win against the finance-sucking behemoth of the London arts scene.

They’ve been consistently producing attractive and challenging theatre – with the brilliant Made in Northampton branding – while other regionals have struggled to survive.

So when they announced the Festival of Chaos series of plays – The Bacchae (staged in the abandoned Chronicle & Echo press hall), Blood Wedding and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – it was further proof of their refusal to allow regional theatre to drop the curtain and bow out.

Yes. Exciting, original theatre in our little Midlands town. World premieres, national arts press heading north to visit, international playwrights drafted in, unfailingly fabulous sets and live musicians; what’s not to like?

I’ve been particularly looking forward to The Bacchae (which I can’t help but pronounce with a Scouse accent, as in; ‘aye, where’s me baccy?’), but couldn’t see it today on the afternoon press show.

So first for us was Blood Wedding, a new adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tale of family feuds and infidelity set beneath the searing Andalucian sun.

We’re introduced to The Groom (Liam Bergin) and his whining, mourning mother (Kathryn Pogson) as she constantly revisits the terrible deaths of her husband and son at the hands of the vicious Felix family. She’s seeing snakes in the kitchen and hidden all the knives.

But the central setting is not the events of the past but the wedding of her surviving son to the daughter of a successful widower, brought up in isolation on one of Spain’s many desolately dry farms. (So far, so Shakespearean).

While the wedding formalities are arranged we’re presented with the stifling poverty of Leonardo’s family. While his wife (played beautifully by the arresting Amanda Wilkin) and baby wait for him to get work and feed them physically and emotionally, he’s already detached himself and riding his horse into the dust to pursue illicit liaisons with the bride-to-be.

As the marriage date arrives the (surprisingly large) cast gather to celebrate, but the Bride and Leonardo behave less like star-crossed lovers and more like spoilt teens. The Groom’s mother continues to dominate the play both physically and mentally as she perpetuates the mythology of her victimised family and drives the last good thing in her life away to seek revenge.

As always the Royal’s staging is beautiful, innovative and makes the small stage work like a much bigger canvas.

The cast work most effectively in the wedding scenes, when the swaying choreography and sweet vocals combine to give the audience its only sense of a hot Spanish setting.

There’s also the surreal but effective performance of Robert Benfield (yes, a grown man) as The Girl, a dirty voice of reality who dips in and out of the action and whose purpose lends more to the playwright’s poetic obsession with death than the fluidity of the story. By the time The Cousin turned into The Moon I was truly confused and a little bit bored.

The monologues dragged on, the occasional forays into ‘modern’ humour grated and broke the flow, and the search through the woods gave me no sense of jeopardy, perhaps because I already had no affection for the fugitives anyway.

Seline Hizli as the Bride tried her damnedest to portray a woman who wanted to reject the path chosen for her as a woman, (while looking like a cross between Rose Byrne and Rachael Weiss). Similarly Amanda Wilkin gave the inexplicably rejected wife a life of sorrowful inevitability.

Some of the movement was allegorical and beautiful. It was lovely to watch, but I wanted to feel the oppressive dry Spanish landscape of the 1930s. I wanted to care.

Still, two rather buff male characters got their shirts off quite a lot, which was nice.

 

Blood Wedding runs at Royal & Derngate, Northampton until June 30. You can find out more about the whole Festival of Chaos line-up and book tickets on 01604 624811 or via http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

 

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Yo! It’s a 13th birthday treat

WE now have two teenagers. Those of you who have read my family saga for several years will be no doubt thinking the same as us – where did the time go?

And we’re also thinking: why can’t we understand a word they are saying? And why won’t they pick up the things they drop all over the floor?

Tuesday was Dougie’s 13th birthday. My cuddly little angel of a baby is now officially mumbling his way into adulthood and reminding me he’s old enough to get a Facebook account.

And my, how the tastes of teens have changed. For his birthday ‘treat’ he asked to go to Yo Sushi. Yes, a sushi bar, with a moving conveyer belt of mini dishes rolling past. A potential disaster with children, as you are charged for the plates you’ve picked.

I had visions of them all grabbing, sticking their fingers in or sniffing, and turning their noses up. Instead they were all fabulously behaved, perched on high stools, eating far more adventurously than expected and having a great time.

I’d highly recommend it just for the fun, although beware the bill – all those fun little dishes are colour coded, and while they all cost between £1.80 and £5, that deliciousness adds up. Limit your pinks and greys!

Oh, and the kids loved the dessert plate called dorayaki, but all hated the pink Mochi. It made a welcome change to one of many Pizza Hut visits.

The nearest Yo Sushi is in Milton Keynes. Perhaps we could get one closer to home . . ?

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Spymonkey’s Oedipussy review, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, February 2012

YOU can hardly move in Northampton at the moment without spotting a poster for the intriguingly-titled Oedipussy, a comedy about, of all things, an incestuous Greek tragedy.

It’s performed by Spymonkey, an accomplished physical theatre group with faces you vaguely recognise but then aren’t sure if you’re mixing them up with others: Petra Massey of Miranda and Hyperdrive fame reminded me of Tracey Ullman circa her Three of a Kind years, while Toby Park has something of the bewildered Mark Heap about him, Stephan Kreiss is a funnier, German version of Stephen Frost from Whose Line is it Anyway while the hilarious Aitor Basauri is a one-off – a deadpan clown whose physicality and expression carried the whole show. So, is it worth the hype? We’d been promised laughs, our audience trooped in to the smell of fresh paint – last minute set change perhaps? And then the four-strong cast told how their last show had received a poor review. This one was going to make up for it.

Switch then to the story of Oedipus – you should swot-up on Wikipedia if your Greek mythology isn’t up to scratch – where a baby is dispatched to die in the hills to avoid the Oracle’s prediction of son-kills-dad-marries-mum coming true.

Mixing a static set with multiple character and costume changes, the troop tell the ancient tale with tongues firmly in cheeks. The performers literally throw themselves into it, with plenty of laughs coming from the fact these are not fresh young teenagers straight out of theatre school. They’ve had to drag themselves to the gym to get themselves in shape and battle the aging process all in the name of slapstick. I fully believed the lines about being on painkillers to make it through the show night after night. If it had been performed by younger actors, it wouldn’t have been as funny.

There were weaker sections. I liked some of the actor’s soliloquies, particularly Toby Park’s heartfelt description of his high-achieving family, but they sometimes unnecessarily interrupted the frantic flow of the narrative. The first half took a good half hour to fully engage the bemused audience, but once the story was in full flow the pace and energy took most of the observers along for the ride.

I was with a group of 19-22 year old students who just didn’t get a lot of the references – PlayAway, Bond films, Wilson, Keppel & Betty’s sand dance and Morrison shelters flew over their heads. But they did laugh at the strange grown-ups running around in nappies. By contrast, a large percentage of the audience were of pensionable age and they were falling about in the aisles.

There is a flash of full-fronted nudity (hence the warnings on the posters and the advice that it’s not for under-14s) but I’m not sure it serves its purpose for a single, albeit funny, joke.

There’s clever and comic use of props and effects – low-fi gory cascading blood, a 70s sci-fi hint to the costumes, Aitor’s show-stealing lepers, silly and sad songs and hilarious Oracle eyes that just reminded me of Cookie Monster from the Muppets.

Oedipussy is a dazzling show, performed by highly-competent actors who have fully honed their craft. Having reviewed dozens of shows over the years, I was relieved that nothing irritated or bored me about it. I laughed solidly throughout, but could also see others around me just not getting the joke.

It’s undoubtedly bold and bizarre, as is Spymonkey’s way, and you can imagine it going down a storm at Edinburgh’s Fringe. But it’s starting its run in Northampton’s traditional Victorian Royal Theatre, and once you get your head around that, you can sit back and enjoy another piece of innovative theatre Made in Northampton.

Oedipussy runs in Northampton until February 18.

Book your tickets now, go on, via www.royalandderngate.co.uk or on 01604 624811.

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Down the Rabbit Hole at Alice in Wonderland, Royal & Derngate, Northampton

MY daughter and I don’t get as much time together since she started nursery, but we took an afternoon out last week to take in a show.

Your daughters might be of an age where you can go for a nice meal or a coffee beforehand, do a bit of shopping perhaps, then spend a civilised evening at the theatre.

For me and Bonnie, it was a packet of jelly tots and a Fruit Shoot in the car park at lunchtime, before being dragged down a make-believe burrow by a rabbit impersonating Frank Spencer and a grown woman dressed as a little girl.

This was Down the Rabbit Hole (DTRH, to save my word-count), the latest interactive show for the under-fives at Royal & Derngate’s Underground, a ‘companion piece’ to the Alice in Wonderland show running in the Royal.

I’ve been to several of these pre-school shows before, including the excellent Where’s the Bear, Knit-wits, Wish-wash, Flathampton and What Makes us Tick?

But if you haven’t, be warned: you need flexible joints and knee pads. There’s a lot of crouching and sitting on the floor.

What makes these productions unique is that you have a small bunch of toddlers following actors dressed in funny clothes around a ‘set’ of rooms, being given little tasks and having their own conversations with the characters.

It’s a recipe for disaster really, but somehow they keep the whole thing just about together. It’s proper storytelling.

In DTRH, the ‘audience’ of kids and parents/grandparents meet the White Rabbit in the foyer, where he’s looking for ‘Mary-Ann’ and switching in and out of a Frank Spencer impersonation (one for the olds).

Then we meet Alice, the aforementioned grown-up lady dressed as a little girl, in a style to make Grayson Perry jealous (one for the arty types).

We (the audience) end up following Alice, who is following the Rabbit, down a series of small doors and tunnels, strangely decorated with oversized rabbit bottoms. Like moose-heads on the walls of a baronial dining room.

We arrive in a small room where a picnic table hangs from the ceiling adorned with upside-down cups and teapots. We’re met this time (*whispers*, same actor), by The Mad Hatter, who sits us on cushions, sings us a silly song, treats us to tea and disappears, to be replaced by the Duchess, Mr Punch and the Pig Baby.

The latter gets passed around to be rocked by the sitting toddlers, sometimes cuddled to make it snort or pushed away in bewilderment and/or fear. (*whispers* it’s a rubber pig-shaped dog chew)

Then we make jam tarts for the Queen’s party from play-dough and meet an odd caterpillar which looks like a fluffy scarf accidentally put through the tumble dryer.

There’s a clever distraction as the children see the tiny door from the famous Drink-Me/Eat-Me scene, when Alice gets them to collectively drink from a bowl using oversized straws. “It’s just blackcurrant squash Mum!” piped up one relieved boy.

When the drink’s finished, the door has been replaced by one that’s big enough for an under-five to crawl through, into another ‘land’ where they play croquet through playing cards using flamingo umbrellas and fluffy (toy) hedgehogs.

Eventually we get to meet the weirdly-Geordie Queen, who is dispatched by the cheering toddlers to a chorus of “off to your bed!” (nicer than ‘off with your head’)

The two actors manage to keep the whole thing together in a very enclosed space, and eventually the audience is ejected back into the relative sanity of the theatre bar where they can play with various props and hidden rooms.

Bonnie was completely transfixed, embracing all the ‘pretend’ tea-drinking and conversations. At three-and-three-quarters she’s probably about the ideal age for this. Younger children were either clinging to parents, or ignoring pleas to sit and rolling under curtains.

Bonnie was slightly confused about why this white rabbit, hatter, duchess and queen didn’t appear to look anything like the ones she’d seen on the big stage at the very same theatre just a couple of days earlier. But she loved it nonetheless and has talked non-stop about it to anyone who will listen.

I was slightly disappointed (alright, very stiff from kneeling) because unlike previous ‘underground’ performances, the show didn’t really move beyond one very cramped room.

However, Down the Rabbit Hole is worth the £5 ticket price to see your pre-schoolers engage with the story of Wonderland up-close and interactive – without any help from technology.  It runs until January 8.

ON the subject of Alice In Wonderland, our family went to see the ‘bigger’ show at the Royal. For the only the second time in far too many years of reviewing the Royal’s usually excellent Christmas offering, I was disappointed (the other one was the Ugly Duckling one).

It had an enthusiastic cast, including a Queen of Hearts channeling her best Queenie from Blackadder while dressed like Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga’s laundry had been mixed up in the launderette. Hatter was engaging, and the lizard bloke works his socks off. But presented with one of the most magical and familiar stories ever, the plot was ludicrous. Unengaging in most parts, using slapstick more akin to the imported panto next door. That’s not what the Royal’s Christmas show is about. A woman behind me actually fell asleep. A return to the magic and other-worldliness next year please?

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