Sleeping Beauty – York Theatre Royal

The first “annual bit of rubbish” at York Theatre Royal without Berwick Kaler as the Dame and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The rest of the cast remained more or less the same, just moved around a bit with varying levels of success.

I enjoyed my evening out. I had a good laugh and I enjoyed the nonsense and the usual rounds of cast member’s corpsing, spectacularly when Darth Diva bashed Evil Diva with his beak!

But…it didn’t have the sparkle that I expect from York Theatre Royal panto.

I think this is down to a number of factors.

Firstly, I think some people were miscast. Martin Barrass as the queen, for example. I think Barrass is a great stooge but he doesn’t have the physical stature or diva qualities to make a good dame. I stick to what I said last year when speculating who might replace Kaler, AJ should have played the queen and Martin the king. Together I think they could have made a funny couple.

I also thought Jack Lansbury didn’t quite pull off the romantic lead. I kept expecting Princess Beauty to run off with Darth Diva instead!

Sadly, Suzy Cooper also lacked energy as Princess Beauty.

Secondly, there are a lot of rumours circulating about the future of the pantomime. There was a report in the Press that Kaler was reconsidering his retirement. A petition on Facebook to “save our pantomime” and at the end of the performance Barrass suggested that not all the cast would be back next year. My partner had also been told that 10 years ago the theatre used to sell 50000 tickets to the panto. This year they sold 30000.

It will be sad if the tradition doesn’t continue but part of me, possibly a slightly cynical part, thinks that this might just be a publicity stunt to raise the profile and generate a bigger audience for next year. Otherwise, I can’t quite see how Martin Barrass keeps his job when he openly challenges the decisions of theatre management from stage.

To finish on a more positive note, I thought David Leonard did his usual sterling job as the baddy and this year he was given more space to develop it.

Newbie Howie Michaels was a good addition to the cast too.

York Theatre Royal pantomime has always been a wonderful retreat from the angst and stress of real life. I hope it continues and that the theatre allows it to evolve rather than throws the baby out with the bath water.

But please, think about how you play to the strengths of your cast.

The Tempest performed by The Handlebards

Another week, another theatre production. This week’s was a much more informal event at the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall in York.

We first discovered The Handlebards last year when some friends invited us to join them on a “picnic in the park” type event at Howsham Mill. This year the same friends organised a larger group of us and it was an indoor event.

The Handlebards describe themselves as an outdoor touring theatre company. I’d describe them as two slightly bonkers groups of actors who cycle round the UK delivering Shakespeare in small venues. All their props and costumes have to be carried on the bikes so most are improvised and rely on the imagination.

This version of The Tempest, delivered by the girls, was unlike any other version I’ve seen. I’d describe it as anarchic and funny without losing the essentials of the plot.

I enjoyed this performance but not quite as much as last year’s Twelfth Night. This was down to 2 main factors. Firstly, I spent the day driving to Coventry, sitting down in a forum for 6 hours and then driving back up to York. Way too much sitting down to be followed comfortably by another 3-ish hours of sitting on not very padded seats. It would be fair to say I had a numb bum and the fidgets from about mid-way through the first half.

Secondly, whilst the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall is a wonderful medieval guild hall it has a lot of pillars supporting the roof and these have a tendency to get in the way. And doesn’t it always seem that a critical bit of action happens at the point you can’t see what’s going on!

The venue though did give me a strong sense of belonging to, and being a small link in, the chain of history. People must have been gathering in this place to watch strolling bands of players, possibly playing The Tempest, for centuries.

In terms of the acting the group are competent and funny. If I paid to see a staged, theatre production I might have been disappointed but in this context it worked well. And I take my hat off to those people who were foolish enough, or were seeing Handlebards for the first time, and sat in the front row. Several of them were co-opted as extras, including 3 brave souls who ended up on stage, and several of them had wine/G&T/olives nicked.

In summary, not great theatre but a great, fun night out with friends.

Click here to find out more about the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall

Click here to ind out more about The Handlebards


Daft Yorkshire Customs – Ian McMillan & Tony Husband

This isn’t really a proper book, it’s an entertaining way to spend an odd 5 – 10 minutes when you need a pause between reading or watching something.

I decided to write it up because it was a timely reminder to me to spend some of my reading time more frivolously. A reminder to take time and giggle about silly things.

I like Ian McMillan’s writing. I buy the Yorkshire Post on a Saturday in part so I can read his column, which entertains me and makes me think. I also think he’s a very entertaining speaker; my partner and I once made a last minute decision to take his mother to see Ian and Tony Husband at an event on the outskirts of Barnsley and I can still feel the ache in my ribcage at the end of the evening from laughing so much. I’m also writing this looking at the cartoon of Archie the fruitbat as drawn by Tony on that evening – you had to be there.

As you can tell, I was always predisposed to enjoy dipping into this book and enjoy it I did.

I love the tiny seed of plausibility at the beginning of each of the ideas and watching each blossom into a wealth of preposterous silliness. After reading 2 or 3 of the customs I could happily settle back into one of my more serious books with a lightened heart.

I need to seek out more of Ian’s book and, if I can, find another opportunity to go and see him again.

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will – Eric Sykes

I always liked Eric Sykes as a comedic actor.  He was alwys funny, he was never crude and The Plank still makes me laugh.  So, when I found a copy of his autobiography at a book sale buying it was a no-brainer.

This is less of an autobiography than a series of anecdotes in chronological order.

The earlier chapters about growing up in Oldham are the most detailed, like a more usual biography.  Sykes describes growing up on the borders of poverty, his early jobs in factories and shops and then his call up into the RAF during the war.

As with many comics of his generation it was the people he met during the war who influenced him to become an actor, comic and writer after the war rather than to settle down back into a steady job in a factory or shop again.

The show-biz years parts of the book are a series of stories about Sykes work or about his family rather than telling the reader much about Sykes the man.  I suspect that like a lot of autobiographies there is a lot that has been left out or swept under the carpet.

Generally though Eric Sykes comes across as a modest man who was interesting and interested.  A man driven to keep working and who also enjoyed what he did.

I’m really pleased I read the book.  And that writing this has taken nearly 3-times as long as a review usually does because I’ve kept been side-tracked into watching YouTube videos.  It’s not often I spend more time laughing than typing when writing!

Click here to find out more about the Plank

Click here to watch The Plank

Click here to watch other Eric Sykes clips


1971 never a dull moment; rock’s golden year – David Hepworth

This book was my partners and he read it in two sittings, which is unusual, so I thought I would give it a go.  It is a history of 1971 told via 12 albums that were released during the year and is written by a music journalist and former presented of The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Hepworth goes through the year month by month telling anecdotes about the making of the albums he chooses, the music scene and the way pop-royalty was learning to live its new millionnaire lifestyle.

This is definitely a book for music lovers of a certain age; mainly, I think, blokes in their 60s who lived through the period and were into prog rock.  I enjoyed reading it and recognising things I lived through but I was only 6 in 1971 and didn’t recognise a lot of the things Hepworth talks about.

What the book did make me do though was think and wonder about a couple of things.  Firstly, does the current fad for “kidulthood” start with the rebellion of “not growing up” in young men in the US in the 60s and 70s, trying to avoid thinking about the Vietnam draft?  Secondly, why do most of us live our lives as affluent zombies, drifting along without thinking what is going on beneath the surface of our lives?  And have both of these things led to the Western world floating complacently along to the point where extreme politics and isolationism are increasing?

For a book I found “ok” it has certainly provoked some deep thoughts!

And, chaps of a certain age, I’d recommend it to you as a good read about music.

The Merry Wives of Windsor – Fiona Laird for RSC

Shakespeare twice in one week! And both of them laugh-out-loud funny, leaving me with an aching face.

We haven’t seen Merry Wives for ages – December 2012 in fact – and whilst I usually enjoy it I didn’t expect this version to be as funny as it was.  Think of it as a 17th century pantomime with great word-play, plenty of slapstick and lots of fun being had by the actors.

I certainly never expected audience participation singing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer!

The stand out performances were, for me, Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley as the titular Merry Wives, David Troughton, who was a brilliant Falstaff and Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter.  Their exaggerated, stereotype characters were much more believable than the 2-dimensional figures they can sometimes be.

There were nice subtle touches too; Charlotte Josephine’s transformation from rough, loutish Bardolph to a polished young woman with a career in particular.

The staging was a bit faffy in some ways with the skeleton outlines of Dr Caius’ house and The Garter dominating the stage, rotating periodically and bit sliding out.  There also seemed to be  a lot of furniture moving.  I think some of it was unnecessary and the idea of moving from place to place could have been suggested in other ways.

That said, there were some really nice touches like the Visit Britain sign in the window of The Garter and the parking sign outside Dr Caius’ house.

The costumes were excellent; a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress.  The “types” were easily identifiable by their clothes.  David Troughton in his tennis whites and then striped blazer were particularly funny, especially once the whites had been through the wheely bin.

Some of the visual humour and gags based on what’s happening in the world were very funny but, I think, don’t translate to the written page.

I also really liked the way this version of the play ends.  Sometimes the ending feels spiteful and is an uncomfortable end to a comedy.  In this version Falstaff gets his comeuppance but it is done with sympathy and not spite, leaving everyone in a jolly mood to go home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and I’d recommend going to see it.

Click here to find out more about RSC and to book tickets

Click here to find out more about the plot of the play

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – RSC

My first trip to the theatre in what seems like forever and the first production I’ve seen of the RSC Spring/Summer season.

The play is a comedy from around 1700 and was originally called The Beau Defeated and is about women making their own choices and wielding their own power. The play is written by Mary Rix, an almost forgotten contemporary of Aphra Benn.  In fact she is so forgotten that I can’t find any more information about her on-line so am relying on the programme notes.

Mrs Rich is wealthy but wants to improve her social standing.  Lady Landsworth has social standing but wants love.  Sir John Roverhead, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset have social standing but want money.  Sir John, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset think they are using Mrs Rich.  Mrs Rich knows she is being used and is allowing it to go on for her own ends.  The play ends with Mrs Rich having married a title and Lady Landsworth having found her love.

I loved the costumes designs for the play.  They immediately tell you what you need to know about the character without anyone having to spell it out.  The set design also did a great job of setting the scene too – simply and without too much faffing.

Sophie Stanton was a wonderful Mrs Rich; a restoration version of Hyacinth Bucket.  She showed her character as being both shrewd and human.

Leo Wringer and Amanda Hadingue were also well cast as the funny country bumpkins Elder Carimont and Toni, a hard act to pull off as they were almost always overshadowed by the gorgeous Lossie and Theia, Elder Carimont’s dogs!

I can’t think of anything I particularly disliked or didn’t enjoy about the play, which I think says quite a lot about it; on the whole is washed over me rather than really engaging me.  It has a good point to make about ambition being a good thing for women to have and it made that point, it just doesn’t really have anything in it that lingers in the imagination and nags to be brought out and chewed over.

If you like a colourful, fun and enjoyable night out at the theatre go to see it.  If you like something to make you think this probably isn’t for you.

But well done to the RSC for rescuing more playwrites from oblivion.  We need more Companies to do this.

Click here to find out what’s on at RSC


The Kindness of Strangers; The Autobiography – Kate Adie

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book but a friend left it when he’d finished reading it whilst staying with us and I happened to pick it up and start reading it without thinking much about it.  I’m so pleased I did.

I am familiar with who Kate Adie is.  She was the war journalist du jour when I was in my early 20s and famous for always wearing her pearl earrings no matter how dire the situation she found herself in.  I hadn’t given much thought to who she is and how she ended up as a war journalist.  If I had I think I would have expected her to have begun her career as a journalist on a local paper, graduated to a national and then moved into television.

The truth is more interesting and, I think, not a path open to people nowadays.

The book starts by giving an overview of growing up in Sunderland in the 1950s/60s, in a reasonably affluent household.  It really gets into its stride when Adie finishes her degree and joins the embryonic Radio Durham as a producer.  The whole experience sounds utterly chaotic, totally exhausting and a whole lot of fun.

The transition from Radio Durham to Radio Bristol to television and from producer to reporter appears to have been a matter of pure chance and of being in the right place at the right time when someone needed someone to do something and there wasn’t the time of budget to find a person with experience.  There is a strong sense of “everyone is in this together” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” ethos when Adie is talking about the BBC in the early parts of the book.

Adie herself comes across as likable and fun.  There were several laugh out loud moments in book – a bit disconcerting for fellow train passengers! – which was unexpected.  Having mainly seen Adie report from war zones I have always had the impression that she is a very serious woman.  Looks like I was much mistaken.

My main criticism of the book though is that I really don’t feel I know much about Kate Adie as a person; the “what makes her tick”, what does she enjoy doing when she isn’t reporting, who are her family.  I think this is fairly typical of an autobiography where an individual is more likely to draw boundaries between what they are happy for people to know and what remains private.  I understand the desire to do this but it does lead to an incomplete picture of the person.

However, if you want to know more about life at the Beeb when local radio was new and there were fewer rules and regulations this is an interesting place to start.

Jack and the Beanstalk – York Theatre Royal

Yes, it’s that time of year again; the Old Jokes Home outing to the pantomime. Hurrah!

I was really looking forward to this, especially since I had 2 exams to sit during the afternoon and was in need of some light relief.

It’s fair to say that with York Theatre Royal pantomime it doesn’t really matter what the title is; it is, essentially, the same panto with the same cast playing more or less the same parts they’ve played for the last millennium just with new music and different costumes.  This pantomime has a cult following; some people have been going to see Berwick Kaler as the Dame for 39 years so the Old Jokes Home at only 9 years are merely babbies and bairns.

Firstly, it was great to see Martin Barrass back in action after missing last year’s panto following a serious motorbike accident.

Secondly, it’s great to see Berwick Kaler looking hale and hearty after his heart bypass surgery.  It wouldn’t be the same without him.

The problem with this year’s panto though is that it was clearly suffering from lack of time to prepare it properly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much.  The slapstick was silly, David Leonard’s evil Dr McCarb was a wonderful baddy and there were the usual pauses whilst cast members got their giggles under control.  It just felt as though there hadn’t been time to do a proper script – I assume there is one so people have a point of reference to riff from – and the time had to be filled up with a lot of singing and dancing.  I did like “Stand by your Mam” though.

York Theatre Royal pantomime is, without doubt, a must-see event, and will continue to be.  But I really hope Berwick Kaler has a more tranquil year in 2018 and more time to write another stonkingly good panto.


The cyclist who went out in the cold – Tim Moore

Happy New Year and I hope you all have a happy, healthy and successful 2018.

I’ve done a reasonable amount of reading over the holiday period but the book I’m reviewing today came about in rather odd circumstances.  I love Tim Moore’s travelogues and have had this one on my radar for sometime but not got round to reading it.  I have been reading a couple of rather heavy (both literally and figuratively) chewy books, both about Nazi Germany. I’ve also been catching up with the latest series of Peaky Blinders in quite big chunks.  The end result of this was a nightmare about armed gunmen bursting into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and gunning everyone down!  I can vividly remember throwing myself under my seat in the dream and waking myself up before finding out whether my partner was safe or not!  A horrible dream that lingered with me all day…whilst going to Stratford to the theatre! The end result is that we went to Waterstones in Stratford to buy some happy books and “The cyclist who went out in the cold” was one of them.

Moore’s latest cycling adventure is to cycle the length of the Iron Curtain on a new(ish) cycle route, the Euro Velo 13.  This being Moore, he does it on a MIFA 900, the GDR equivalent of a Raleigh Twenty

I can’t imagine riding 10 miles on this sort of bike but to do 10400km on one strikes me as being utterly bonkers, even by Tim Moore standards.

The Iron Curtain Trail starts in Norway, continues into Finland, into Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad, Poland, Germany (zigzagging across what used to be the border between East and West), Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and finishing at the Black Sea back in Bulgaria.  There is a mix of terrain, complete contrasts in weather and the usual Tim Moore mix of people he meets along the way.

The book varies between laugh out loud moments of sheer silliness, poignant moments and interesting diversions into bits of history related to the places Moore visits.

It was great to recognise descriptions of places I have also visited in the book although I do think that the author is a bit uncharitable about some of the places. Perhaps you see things differently coming to them cold and wet on a bicycle from how you see them coming in warm and dry on a coach.  Especially in the northern countries when it is still winter conditions.

My other slight niggle is that the later countries didn’t get quite the same level of detail as the countries up to and including Germany.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was exactly what I needed after my nightmare and, because I was enjoying it so much I read it in 2 afternoons.  This is a truly epic and interesting journey.  Tim Moore, I take my cycle helmet off to you!