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Review of Gaslight, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 2015.

Review of Gaslight, Royal & Derngate, Northampton. (Press night performance)


By Hilary Scott

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

YOU usually find mention of the set design for a new theatre production much further down in a review, but in Gaslight at Northampton’s Royal Theatre the stage is the first star you lay eyes on.

With the action confined to the classic ‘one-room-in-a-period-setting’, it’s a tough job to be original.

But William Dudley and the Royal’s set-production team have created a stunningly clever Ames Room – one of those that alters your perception of the things within it – which perfectly reflects the theme of the play: manipulation of someone’s mind to make them doubt their own sanity, or Gaslighting.

The use of clever modern video projection, in a 130-year-old theatre, for a play set in stifling the stifling late Victorian age shouldn’t work – yet it does, brilliantly (except for one very ridiculous section near the end which doesn’t, and made us laugh when we should be shocked).

We had no time to leaf through the programme beforehand, which is just as well, because then we had no spoilers or expectations. This is a psychological thriller, which made the entire audience shift uncomfortably in its seats as the stellar cast messed with our minds.

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald is exquisite as the vulnerable, bullied Bella Manningham, running the gauntlet in her own house between her domineering husband Jack, played menacingly by Jonathan Firth (I was two-thirds through before I recognized him as Colin’s brother), the servants, and her own sanity.

Fitzgerald stars in the globally popular Game of Thrones and I suspect a percentage of the packed audience was there to see her.

Is her encounter with her apparent saviour, the rosy-cheeked Inspector Rough (Paul Hunter), just another example of her mind playing tricks?

No spoilers: You’ll have to go and see for yourselves.

Gaslight, a Made in Northampton production, runs at Royal & Derngate until November 7. Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk


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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 http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

Matt Walsh

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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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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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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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It’s panto season (oh no it isn’t. . .)

It might be eight months until Christmas, but the theatres are already taking bookings for their Christmas pantomimes and seasonal shows.

There’s a newish addition to the venue list this year as the Core at the Corby Cube, managed by Royal & Derngate, will be offering its second season of seasonal, er, stuff .

It may feel odd, but now’s the time to book as there are usually early-bird discounts and panto tickets are notoriously expensive, especially if you have a stupid amount of children like I do.

Here’s the press blurb, stay tuned for more panto news. . .

“The Core is delighted to announce that this Christmas they will be presenting not one, but two, great family shows for Corby audiences to enjoy. One Snowy Night, from the popular Tales from Percy’s Park series by Nick Butterworth, can be seen from Tuesday 29 November to Sunday 4 December, and then CBBC’s Dan and Jeff present the hilarious Potted Panto from Wednesday 7 to Sunday 10 December

One Snowy Night is a wonderfully heart-warming winter’s story. Percy the Park Keeper always feeds the animals in the park where he lives. But one cold winter’s night, Percy finds his little friends shivering on the doorstep – they need more than food and he must find a way to help them. With delightful handmade puppets, an original soundtrack and dance, Nick Butterworth’s well-known and well-loved tale is brought to life in a magical show ideal for three to six-year olds.

The creators of Potted Potter and Potted Pirates, Dan and Jeff, perform seven classic pantomimes in just eighty minutes, in Potted Panto, their most extravagant show yet, in glorious 3D. In a madcap ride through the biggest stories and best-loved characters from panto, the dastardly double act dash from rubbing Aladdin’s lamp to roaming the golden streets of Dick Whittington’s London. Searching for Cinderella’s lost slipper, they try to wake Sleeping Beauty before the giant climbs down Jack’s beanstalk to squash Snow White’s seven dwarves.

Nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment after a successful West End run, Potted Panto is unmissable fun for all ages, from six to 106.

Tickets for One Snowy Night are priced from £8 to £12.50 and Potted Panto tickets are £8 to £13, with concessions for families, groups and schools. For more information or to book, call the Ticket Line on 01536 470 470 or visit http://www.thecorecorby.com.”

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The taxi-driving life of the Luvvie Mother

 THREE years ago our two eldest sons got the parts of John and Michael Darling in Peter Pan at Derngate, Northampton, alongside David Essex.

Jed and Dougie were aged just ten and eight, I was heavily pregnant with Bonnie, and Billy was only just four. After a month or more of ferrying them all back and forth from rehearsals and shows, over Christmas, we were all completely knackered.

And I decided then that it had been a brilliant experience, but we wouldn’t do it again.

Jed and Dougie in Peter Pan with David Essex, Christmas 2007

Fast forward a couple of years and we appear, somehow, er, to be doing it all over again.

This time in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, next door at the Royal Theatre.

Its different. Slightly.

The boys aren’t principal characters with lines, but part of the larger chorus. They are also, obviously, older and more independent.

So how do you suddenly find yourself as the parent of ‘performers’? Isn’t that the mark of the ultimate in pushy-parents? The uber-pushy?

Well no, actually, this has very little to do with us. Honest.

Jed has been part of Northampton’s County Youth Theatre group, which meets every Saturday at Clare Street, for years. Then Dougie joined too, and in a bizarrely casual way they caught the performing bug and wanted to audition for everything they could.

Usually I say no.

However, when they came home asking to audition at the Royal, I wavered.

It’s the Royal’s Christmas show (never call it panto), which I’ve actually been reviewing for the Chron for about the last 12 years, ever since the days of Michael Napier Brown and Vilma Hollingberry (that’ll show your age).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is being directed by Dani Parr, who I’ve met a few times through her shows for kids, including Where’s the Bear and Flathampton.

So when auditions came around in late summer, I relented.

They auditioned over a weekend alongside a hundred or more other kids (most of whom wore ankle warmers and ‘jazz shoes,’ while my pair wore muddy trainers).

It’s a peculiar experience, the child-actor audition. There’s a lot of waiting around, and everyone has a number. Mostly you’re in and out, and unless they tell you to hang around, you know fairly quickly if they’ve been rejected.

At the end of this one, they called dozens of numbers and took those delighted children away.

We all assumed ours hadn’t got in and got ready to console them and bribe them back to happiness with promises of pizza. But agonisingly, those called out hadn’t got through, and there were more tears than at an X-Factor sing-off.

Rejection is the really tough bit for both children and parents to handle. Beforehand, rather than telling them how brilliant they are, you have to keep reminding them that they might not be chosen – because they are too young, to old, too fair, too dark, whatever you can think of – so the blow is cushioned. At the auditions I saw one parent really losing her rag with the stage manager, loudly demanding to know why her child wasn’t chosen. It was painful.

If chosen, there’s lots of form filling, and laying out of rules. There’s no payment, one pair of free tickets, and you must be on time and available for two months.

You have to get written permission from their headteacher for them to be out of school for some days in December when they’re doing matinee shows – which doesn’t often go down well.

Rehearsals began over half-term, and have continued at least one school night and Saturday or Sunday since. Towards the opening night, on November 30, they rehearse just about every evening and some days.

But they’re loving it. They’ve learned fight scenes with the ‘proper’ actors and a ‘proper’ fight director . They tell me they are playing a hippogryph and a satyr (I had to look it up).

They’re also evacuees, reindeer and baddies. “I’m an imp baddie, and Doug’s an ape baddie, so he doesn’t need make-up,” said Jed, before being tackled to the floor. By the ape.

It’s a relentless schedule. Jed and Doug are doing 22 shows between December 3 and January 8, including Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. But they are one of three junior casts doing a whopping 66 performances. At least this time, they aren’t doing matinees and evening shows on the same day, and get some days off. It’s an extraordinary thing for the theatres to organise.

For the parent, it’s nerve-wracking and a little isolating. You hand them over to chaperones for the fun part and just feel like chief taxi-driver and sandwich-maker. You also have a life and other kids to make feel just as special. The evening shows and rehearsals can finish late, and in our case, with Bloke working away, this means relying on the kindness of a friend down the road to pop up and babysit, or too frequently, putting the sleepy siblings into the car on the PJs. It’s not ideal.

If your child does show a leaning towards performing arts, it’s important to be both encouraging and grounded. Being in theatre shows is a brilliant ways to boost confidence, learn skills and make friends, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a step to instant fame and fortune.

If any of my lot want to tread the boards full-time when they’re older, that’s fine. But while they’re still kids, I’d like them to have a normal life and a childhood.

And maybe you have kids who prefer to sit in a comfy theatre seat and watch others dress-up in funny costumes. That’s our Billy’s plan anyway. . .

 • Tickets for the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe are on sale at Royal&Derngate, via the website or box office, on Northampton 624811.

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