Theatre review: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

Grand Opera House, York

Despite the fact it had been running in London for a while, I was glad I knew nothing about Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. The only thing I needed to know was it was from the makers of The Play That Goes Wrong, the rip-roaringly funny send-up of murder mysteries – the play within a play.

The brainchild of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, it uses the pacing of a 1950s-style Tinseltown comedy as its blueprint. The sort of quick-talking wiseguy schtick that translates the world over.

The premise is simple: a Canadian gang attempt to steal a gem from a Minneapolis bank. However, the first few minutes don’t bode well as verbal gymnastics using the name “Robin Threeboys” is exhausted in every way possible.

Surely you can’t be serious.

I am, and don’t call me Shirley.

A much better gag from Airplane!, the film which for me has long held the record for the greatest gags per minute (GPM).

I do wonder if “Robin Freemen” would have been a better joke, but thankfully that’s just a warm-up gag as characters are introduced, the premise is established and the scene-stealing first act set piece reveals itself like a pull-down bed.

Yes, we’ve all seen that gag before where an amorous couple or single individual are elevated into said bed, but rarely has it been pulled off with such skill on stage.

A game of charades also brings the house down as an identity is assumed and the young anti-hero attempts to assume the guise of old Robin Threeboys.

Later one of those “how did they do that?” gags which is worth the price of admission alone. All great shows need a moment that takes the breath away, and full marks to the cast and crew for pulling off a scene which is as visually stunning as it is daring. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’ll know it the second you see it.

But aside from some brilliant stunts and the age-old “whoops, there go my trousers” routine that has propped up farces for decades, there are some gloriously silly moments, from seagulls to giant moustaches. Again, all will become clear.

As I was a newcomer to the production, I had no basis for comparison when it came to the conversion from West End stage to the Grand Opera House. However, I do know the more intimate setting worked splendidly. And it’s often the one-liners that are the greatest treasures such as “I do know I hit you repeatedly with different objects just to see which was hardest,” is one of those throwaway lines delivered in a deadpan way which nailed the glorious irreverence.

The fact I could see it all again a day after my first viewing is testament to its brilliance.

(Hats off to my old school mate Kevin McCurdy, who ensured the fight choreography worked a treat).

My advice is if you run out of time and don’t manage to see this York run, do everything you can to catch it when it arrives in Hull later in the year.

The same show will get a different reaction at different theatres, and as much as I adore the York productions, Hull audiences seem more up for a laugh when a broad slapstick farce like this comes to town.

It’s one of the funniest shows of this or any other year. To miss it would be a crime.


Hannah – Credit Where it’s due

This is Hannah. She’s a nice enough young woman. She’s single but happy. Has a car but drove it into a lamppost while wondering where she’d left her glasses. They were on her head.

She’s got a cat called Eric and an interesting rash that gets a bit angry every time Jeremy Kyle berates the great unwashed. Oh, and she wishes she were as smart as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but is more like Phoebe from Friends.

In this reality, Hannah is the construct of ad folks who spent too long wondering whether to have cinnamon latte or half-caf demi-frothy cappuccino. More time than they spent on their ad campaign. An unpaid intern was sent to investigate how to use a bus. They were told to get a receipt, but they had to let him go at the end of two weeks. The receipt was lost.

“This should generate lots of interest,” quipped Tarquin as he felt that 20 minutes work watching Fleabag on his IPad while leafing through a copy of Heat was enough to touch base with the impoverished punters keen to get their hands on some of that life-empowering plastic.

“Oh absolutely,” replied his second-in-command, Amelie, a millennial named after that movie. Like her friend Leon, she hated being a product of her parents’ whims and preferred to be known as Siri-Alexa.

Unknown to them, Hannah died after stepping off the bus. Her friends at the reunion wondered where she was for about ten minutes, but no-one had her number since they upgraded to the new iPhone and couldn’t figure out how to transfer their address bookThey retired to Nando’s while Hannah was rushed to A&E. Eric was adopted by Phoebe, the nurse who announced the time of death.

The funeral was held at the church a mile from Hannah’s front door. It was attended by a woman called Annette. Tarquin smiled at the fact Hannah’s demise attracted Annette interest.


The news has always been bad. Let’s not be coy. Since day one there was pain, conflict, bad weather, despots. Yes, February 2019 is pretty awful, but that’s what happens when you get 24/7 rolling news and more choice in terms of your news vendors. It’s a given that one flake of snow on the BBC weather centre roof will mean the whole country is under ten feet of the stuff when chances are it has been for weeks but lazy reporters couldn’t be arsed to look further north than Watford Gap.

And inevitably Brexitrump rolls on. The two things have been so intertwined for so long it’s hard to remember a time when a crass game show host wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as Blighty attempting to go solo for the first time since forever. The educated masses know it’s an awful idea, like the C5 car or a chocolate teapot, and yet Heston Blumenthal has made the latter so who knows?

Meanwhile, in the middle of nowhere, a writer continues to stick a chopstick in his head while doing a mind-numbing job because (deep breath) it’s less painful than trying to finding an outlet where a professional features scribe with decades of experience is more respected professionally than the woman who waters the plants.

No disrespect to plant woman. She’s very good at what she does, but it’s one of those nameless companies where plants have a higher priority than the staff. Nurture plants, let them breathe and encourage their growth while letting talented staff either wither and die or make life so difficult for them that they have little choice but to leave.

Clearly the future is in office-based horticulture.

Now where did I leave that chopstick?

Theatre review – Abigail’s Party

Abigail’s Party
Grand Opera House, York

I’ve been a fan of Mike Leigh’s work for longer than I can remember. I’ve spent years quoting lines from his classic films Life is Sweet and Naked, while TV offerings such as Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party are also woven into the fabric of British comedy history. The latter, first televised in 1977, was a glorious satire which gave the likes of Alison Steadman and Benidorm’s Janine Duvitski two of the best roles of their careers. 
It’s something of a dream on stage because of the fixed set – a masterpiece of forced perspective which gives it far more depth than the theatre would normally allow. 
Watching Jodie Prenger swaying to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby in the opening scenes brings all those memories flooding back. 

But when I think about it, how much of the play do I actually know? Aside from lead character Beverly dominating proceedings like some sort of suburban social ringmaster, arguing with estranged husband Laurence, while endlessly topping up the glasses of willowy guest Sue, neighbour Ange and monosyllabic husband Tone, I realise not much. 
Classic one-word lines such as: “DoyoulikeDemisRoussos?” are just the tip of the iceberg. And then I realise it must be 20 years since I last saw it, probably during the BBC’s Abigail’s Party night, back in the days when they used to have themed evenings. 

So for this Leigh fan, it’s actually a bonus that I don’t know the show as well as I thought. And the fact is that’s probably because not a lot happens. Beverly, a powerhouse performance from Ms Prenger, argues with her husband a lot, albeit with death stares and passive aggressive behaviour; flirts with Tony; patronises Ange, and wields power over divorced Sue like a hammer. Except there’s little depth to Bev. She’s one of those people who is outstanding when it comes to hosting a soirée and keeping everyone’s glasses topped up, but scratch beneath the surface of the facade, and she’s  empty. When things take a dark turn later in the show, she’s all bluster and hot air. 
Director Sarah Esdale does a fine job of keeping things ticking over, which is not easy when part of the show relies on awkward, uncomfortable silences. Daniel Casey (Laurence), Corrie veteran Vicky Binns (Angela), Calum Callaghan (Tony) and Rose Keegan (Sue) ensure there’s rarely a dull moment. 

Okay, the cast were a little drowned out by the music in the first few minutes, so a little more volume would have helped for those of us in the Dress Circle, but it didn’t detract from the entertainment too much. 

It’s easy to do this sort of thing badly, poking fun at the relatively affluent 1970s middle-aged set. Had it been penned now, a lesser writer would have thought a few mentions of Vesta curries, Double Diamond, eight-track tapes and Sacha Distel was enough to keep viewers of a certain age entertained, but it’s a far more subtle drama than that. And like so many classic shows of the era, I’m surprised it hasn’t been turned into a musical. It’s almost begging for it, but the inertia of Leigh’s work is what makes the material work. Tone doing very little for the bulk of the show (as he’d rather be anywhere else) is as important as Beverly being the driving force behind the narrative. She’s the personification of that pre-internet era when three TV channels, LPs and no VCRs ensured that social gatherings were more the norm rather than creating a social channel on Facebook. 

Leigh’s working practices have become the stuff of stage and film legend. Glorious improvised sessions in which actors get under the skin of their characters and the narrative is shaped around them. So as much as Leigh is the author, kudos must also go to the likes of Alison Steadman and Janine Duvitski who helped craft this glorious satire more than four decades ago. Fashions and style may have changed, but the core of the drama is still very relevant. 

Even if you have no idea what Pomagne is, Abigail’s Party is a fizzy, bubbly concoction that might be more dated than disco, but not in a bad way. We all know a Beverly, whether male or female, and she’s the key reason why the show works so well in any medium. 
As great as the cast are, It’s testament to Jodie Prenger that I could have watched the whole show with just her on stage, and the others just heard as voices in the wings until those final few minutes when things go pear-shaped. 
To paraphrase Beverly’s glorious, one-word catchphrase. “DoyoulikeAbigail’sParty? It’s fantastic isn’t it?”

Travel – A Voyage Round New Zealand 

A Voyage Round New Zealand 
By Roger Crow/@RogerCrow

Twenty years ago a guy knocked on a farmer’s door in Matamata, New Zealand. The resident was watching the rugby and was non-plussed when the visitor asked if he could look round his farm. Said visitor was a film scout for Peter Jackson, who was planning a film version of Tolkien’s epic fantasy tome. 

“The Lord of the what?” asked the owner, before his son persuaded him this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The farmer agreed, and before long Jackson and company transformed part of his land forever. 

I get the feeling that story has been told countless times in the years since The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies helped turn Matamata and New Zealand itself into major tourist attractions. 
Wandering around the stunning sets I’d witnessed many times in some of my favourite films is a surreal experience. (The permanent set was rebuilt for The Hobbit films a few years ago). 

It’s still early and the weather is a little overcast in Matamata as coach loads full of tourists like me and my partner take photos and pose by hobbit doors. Even if you’re not a fan, the place is an oasis of calm and very tastefully done. 

This is our third Tolkien-related excursion in as many days, having recently explored the forest in Wellington where hobbits encountered evil Black Riders, and the stunning Mount Sunday, which formed the backdrop for the Golden Hall of Edoras. (The structure was dismantled years ago, but it’s such a breathtaking region, it hardly matters). 
This dream trip is the result of a lot of planning, and even more saving. 
Having turned 50 a few months earlier, my mission was to not let the year go unmarked, but have the mother of all adventures. 

So, after an epic journey from Howden to Heathrow on Christmas Eve (not for the faint of heart), Rachel and I fly to Sydney (via Beijing), and enjoy a few days exploring the iconic Australian city before boarding a luxury cruise liner and setting sail for New Zealand. The trip is nicknamed ’Across the Ditch’, an affectionate term for crossing the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, and vice versa. 

Our home for almost two weeks is the same ship featured in the latest run of ITV’s The Cruise, and for this veteran of assorted other voyages, the Majestic Princess more than lives up to its name. 
Sixteen decks; a glorious main theatre, and assorted dining rooms, eating areas, coffee shop and more mean we’re in our element. 
If nothing else it’s great just to get away from the endless Brexit/Trump nightmare, and with no desire to sign up for a WiFi package, it’s quite easy to be happily cut off from the rest of the world. 

I’d planned on coming to Australia for decades, and though my mid-nineties plans fell through, finally making that dream a reality is a major tick on my bucket list. 
New Zealand, on the other hand, had been a goal since I spent countless hours watching documentaries on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and how he defied the odds to make the biggest film saga ever made in Australasia. 

Our excursions do not disappoint. Before we even set foot on land, we sail through Milford Sound, a fiord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island.
This gloriously atmospheric region of fog and waterfalls looks like it could have doubled for any prehistoric movie. It’s an unforgettable experience sunbathing on a luxury cruise liner as the backdrop suddenly turns into a scene from a Hollywood dino epic. Had a pterodactyl soared overhead, I would not have been surprised. 

I discover three sea days is my limit before going a little stir crazy, so by the time we set foot on dry land, it’s a treat to explore moeraki boulders – spherical rocks (or concretions) at Koekohe Beach, in Oamaru (also on the South Island). We later enjoy a visit to a Steampunk HQ. As a huge fan of Victorian-inflected sci-fi and fantasy, this mix of art collaboration and gallery is a genre fan’s dream. 

Oamaru is glorious place, bursting with artsy/crafty shops, second-hand book stores and terrific eateries. 
In the days that follow we also sample the delights of Auckland (Piha Beach, where The Piano was partly filmed), and at the Bay of Islands (our last port day), witness a fantastic Maori song and dance ceremony, and best of all get to to row a Maori war canoe. (Top tip: take a waterproof camera). 

The whole thing is obviously not a cheap experience, but it’s worth every penny, and cruising to assorted ports around New Zealand is a lot more fun and stress-free than driving. 
It doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy some terrific on-board entertainment, including Steve Larkins’ Mercury Rising, the best Queen/Freddie Mercury comedy tribute act I’ve seen. 

Princess have really upped their game since the last time I sailed with them (on a mini voyage round the UK and Ireland). 
Just the in-room movies left me a happy punter, not to mention Movies Under the Stars – a top-deck communal experience, which is a must for those who love nothing more than crashing out on a sun-lounger with a bag of popcorn, and soaking up a great film. 
Oh, and the beds ensure any initial jet lag melts away like many of the delicious ice creams we obtain on the upper deck. 

Okay, there could have been more choices for vegetarians, but that aside the assorted kitchens do a fine job of catering for the thousands of travellers. 
The room service is also very good, as we discovered on New Year’s Day with a selection of breakfast goodies. 
Celebrating several New Years within a few hours is one of those experiences we’ll not forget in a hurry. Five of them in total, including Blighty’s new year at midday.

While there’s plenty of recreational activities, from ping pong, basketball and swimming to enjoy, sometimes it’s the simplest which appeal most, such as trivia quizzes in the Princess Live studio area. Being a movie and 007 obsessive, I’m chuffed when I walk off with two back-to-back wins, but there’s plenty of head-scratchers which leave us happy just to soak up the atmosphere. 

The acid-test for any great holiday is would we do it all again? Well, we’d go via LA, Dubai or Singapore next time for the variety, but in terms of the cruise, a repeat excursion would be a dream revisit in a few years. 

As intriguing as ITV’s The Cruise is, telly cameras don’t really do the Majestic Princess justice. It’s a glorious way to travel, beautifully designed, and little wonder passengers (such as us) bond with it as they trek from port to port. 
In short: it’s one cruise to rule them all. 

Film review- Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie
Directed by Jon S Baird
Starring Steve Coogan, John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson 
Certificate PG

Years ago a friend showed me one of his mum’s most treasured possessions: a photo of Laurel and Hardy during their UK tour. For this lifelong fan of their work, it’s one of those snapshots I’ve never forgotten, and I’m reminded of it many times during their latest big screen incarnation. 

There were many ways to tell the story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy double act of all time. Chart their rags-to-riches success story, from their first meeting to their success in Hollywood. Or give viewers a taste of that before cutting to the tail end of their story. A riches-to-rags saga if you like. 

Director Jon S Baird (maker of the outstanding James McAvoy offering Filth) and writer Jeff Pope have given us the latter, a bittersweet series of sketches wrapped up in the narrative, with some often unforgettable moments. 
Steve Coogan is a delight as Stan, the driving force of the operation, who is constantly coming up with gags and sketches for their stage and screen work. However, it’s John C Reilly who steals the show as Ollie. There are times he’s so convincing, I had to remind myself that “Babe” hadn’t been recreated from old footage. 

Following the opening, in which they perform in comedy Western Way Out West, and Stan has issues with director Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over pitiful wages and a lack of creative control, we fast forward a few years to their tour of the UK. Norman Wisdom is the hottest name in British showbiz, and the beloved double act are having trouble selling out small theatres. 

Their champion is Bernard Delfont (an outstanding turn from Rufus Jones), the impresario who is the king of positive talk, while using reverse psychology to get what he wants. They may have been huge once, but Stan and Ollie’s star has faded, so with the aid of some publicity stunts, they manage to attract a bigger audience once more. 
Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are terrific as the women in the funnymen’s lives, and there are several moments which left me more than a little moved. 

The final reel will leave many reaching for the tissues. Stan counting down on his fingers to Ollie during the rib tickling ’double door routine’ is hugely touching. Though not a major moment, it sums up the almost psychic relationship between the duo, and the unspoken support between them. 
It’s obviously not a hugely expensive movie, but it’s made with so much heart and skill, it hardly matters. There is comedy gold here, as well as heart-wrenching screen magic. A love story between two comic behemoths whose legacy was once the staple of British TV, and is now sorely lacking. 
In an age when the Beeb think generic consumer and game shows are more important than classic comedy, there’s little wonder fans like me have to track down classic films on streaming services an Youtube. A pity, as Stan alone was arguably Blighty’s greatest funnymen, and he and Ollie deserve regular screenings on BBC Four if nothing else. 

Film review – Glass

Starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson
Certificate 15
Directed by M Night Shyamalan

In 2000, fresh from the success of The Sixth Sense, M Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a brilliant spin on the fantasy genre which asked “What if superheroes were real and just didn’t know it?”
It seemed like the first act of any superhero movie – the teaser for something bigger, like the first X-Men movie. It was begging for a sequel, but MNS seemed in no hurry. 
So while he went off and made impressive offerings like Signs and The Village, fans wondered if they’d ever see an Unbreakable follow-up. 
Then, after what seemed like an age, along came Split, a brilliant psychological thriller which gave James McAvoy the role, or rather roles, of a lifetime. His turns as Crumb, a killer with multiple personalities, helped turn Split into a low budget blockbuster, and in the last few minutes it bridged the gap between MNS’s beloved 2000 movie and something bigger. 

So now we have Glass, what should be the final chapter in a trilogy, and for the most part it’s a compelling mix of smart writing, some hefty action scenes and compelling drama. 
Like all great superhero epics, the more it’s grounded in reality, the more believable the fantasy is, and as ’superman in a raincoat’ David Dunn is locked up in a medical facility with the eponymous villain and schizophrenic Crumb, the scene is set for much analysis. It’s like watching a superhero movie in which the characters’ motives are assessed by a psychologist in a DVD commentary. 

As before, McAvoy is phenomenal, jumping between multiple roles, and occasionally terrifying as the murderous head of his psychotic ensemble, The Horde. 
The Beast is once more an impressive creation, all growling malevolence and straining muscles. It’s hard to know whether it’s CG McAvoy, his face imposed onto a bodybuilder, or the real thing. 
Meanwhile, Samuel L Jackson is as terrific as ever as the titular villain, a mostly trancelike character with brittle bones confined to a wheelchair. And after years of humdrum movies, Bruce Willis slots straight back into his role as Dunn, the gifted security expert who catches bad guys by getting vital psychic clues while having a fear of water. 

The smart thing about Glass is it alludes to yet another showdown in a hi-tech skyscraper that seems plucked from any generic superhero offering, but doesn’t quite go down that path. 
If there’s a fault it’s the third act which goes on a little too long, and a pay-off which seems slightly underwhelming, like MNS didn’t know how to end his movie. (We could have done without his cringeworthy cameo in Dunn’s shop – it goes on too long, though is thankfully not as damaging as Lady in the Water). 

It’s great to see Unbreakable’s young star Spencer Treat Clark after all these years returning as son of Dunn, while Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey is as mesmerising here as she was in Split. 
So it’s not quite a runaway success but certainly light years ahead of MNS’s After Earth, or The Happening. 
And seen in a marathon viewing with Unbreakable and Split, it should leave many a genre fan satisfied. 

Travel: Flying Visits to China 

By Roger Crow

“Just a few more steps,” I tell myself while dragging one foot in front of the other. I’m gasping, partly through exhaustion and partly through amazement. 
Juggling a fake Go-Pro (a cheap waterproof video camera on a selfie stick I nickname Go-Crow) and an IPad that keeps shutting down, probably through the cold), I press on to the next summit. And then another. And another. 

There are walls and then there are great walls. Sorry (not sorry) Donald. Not even the greatest bricklayers or Lego masters on earth can make your bonkers ’vision’ a reality on a par with the Great Wall of China. Not unless you have centuries to play with. 
To put this in context, a day before I walked 10 miles around Sydney, so I’ve certainly had a great warm-up for this Sunday morning constitutional. 
Following an epic flight back to Blighty, I’ve stopped off in Beijing again for a flying visit to one of the wonders of the world. 

The first trip here two weeks earlier was a mix of annoying temporary visa application, tiresome passport control and a huge language barrier with our guide, and everyone else, as we explored Tiananmen Square, the Olympic village, the exterior of the forbidden city, and a marketplace filled with delicacies that made some exotic sci-fi movies look tame by comparison. 

As amazing and disturbing as China is, with its epic architecture, vast wealth and poverty, the overriding feeling on my first trip was cold. It felt like icicles being injected into my legs as I explored the huge streets and bustling marketplaces. 

Being a Blade Runner fan, it also felt like the fantasy of big screen 2019 had become reality in Beijing. The only thing missing was the flying cars. Some of the locals certainly had that replicant quality: fresh faced-troops who looked like they’d stepped off a production line on one street and city-dwellers driving motorcycles with what look like oven gloves attached to the handlebars elsewhere. 

On this return visit in the real 2019, I’m armed with a plan: pyjama trousers under my waterproofs. It works like a dream. 

It took between 1500 and 2000 years to build the Great Wall, contains the bodies of countless workers, and makes the beloved walls around York look like child’s play by comparison. This vast construction at times resembles an MC Escher optical illusion drawing: a wall that becomes a mountain of bricks. A mix of crazy angles to aid rain drainage, and the sort of almost troop-defying steps that underlined its military strength. 

I’m well aware that one false move could lead to a very bad day for me and Rachel. But thankfully we enjoy many an “Ooh” at the spectacle without too many “Aarghs”. 
I’ve saved a minute’s ’Go-Crow’ footage from a two-week trek around Australia and New Zealand for something special, and having tottered around this phenomenal construction, I decide that tobogganing down the epic hillside is just the way to finish off the memory card. 

I’ll admit I had little desire to do the whole Great Wall experience, but thankfully Rachel has planned everything to the letter, so when we touch down in Beijing early Sunday morning and spend an hour applying for another temporary visa from a massively understaffed department, fear gives way to curiosity. 

Thankfully this time our guide speaks fluent English, our driver could give Clarkson a run for his money on any track (essential for Beijing traffic), and an hour after setting off from the airport, we’re at the wall. 

A wall with graffiti scratched into its ancient bricks; names scrawled here and there. It’s like scribbling your name on the Mona Lisa. Thankfully we’re among the first to arrive, so the winter sun and loud tourists aren’t in our faces as we make our various ascents. 
As one of Yorkshire’s least fit men, I’m amazed how relatively ’easy’ the journey is. Yes, it’s cold, and juggling cameras is tricky, but being cooped up on an Air China flight for 10 hours from Australia means I’m ’well rested’. 

That and the fact a fellow local traveller in his sixties or seventies makes the various ascents look like a child scaling a staircase. 

“Let’s go,” he smiles, way ahead of me as I watch him scale the almost vertical steps. I give him a round of applause and press on, counting off the steps in 10 and 15-step increments as my muscles wonder what on Earth I’m doing. 
Sorry lazy legs; this is one easy Sunday morning you won’t win. Bucket list and life goals hash tags are calling. That and a few hundred social media posts. 

After ascending via chair lift (where you literally jump on backwards before it mows you down, and jump off before it knocks you out), the descent via winding toboggan on S-shaped bends is a lot more fun and painful. If like me you suffer pain from hyper-extended legs (horse riding also creates an issue), then you might want to give it a miss. If not then put your accelerator lever forward, braking occasionally) and enjoy. 

The Great Wall of China is an experience that redefines the word ’epic’. It’s a vast slice of history; a tribute to the countless souls who lost their lives in its construction, and 13,170 miles of jaw-dropping insanity. 

Historians of course will have their own take on the experience, no doubt pointing out the political context of the wall, and its price. In which case, great. Happy to watch that documentary on TV at some point. But for this traveller who is just happy to seize the day when flying visits arise, I’ll just say the wall is one of those Maya Angelou moments: “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
And the wall certainly does the latter. 
My take? Whatever gets you to your various summits, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, embrace the fear and be amazed by the result from the top. 

Love Actually in Concert – the film with live orchestra  Bonus Arena, Hull

It’s a while since I’ve seen Richard Curtis’s all-star romcom. For a decade, Love Actually would be screened every Christmas in our house, an annual ritual like Elf and It’s A Wonderful Life. When it was first released on DVD, I watched all the extras and director/cast commentary. Years ago I also bought the soundtrack for my better half, but it never gets played these days. Other favourite films like La La Land, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born stole its thunder, so seeing the whole thing again with an orchestra at Hull’s Bonus Arena is every bit as good as I hope for, and then some. 

As a film nut, I’m delighted that the movie/orchestra experience isn’t just reserved for London, as much as I love the odd trip to the Albert Hall to geek out on such screenings. 
Love Actually is such a finely tuned screenplay, it’s easy to overlook Craig Armstrong’s score until that rousing finale. However, there’s such a wealth of goodies to enjoy before that third act pay-off. 

Watching a few chords plucked on a guitar is every bit as powerful as the entire orchestra working their magic on a mostly captive audience. (One attendee next to us managed to spend most of the experience on social media, which seems like a strange/annoying way to spend a night at such a fabulous event). 
Whether through soaring strings or heart-rending brass, Love Actually is a gem of a movie with a score every bit as magic. Watching Emma Thompson’s heart break as the (now much-missed) Alan Rickman falls for his alluring colleague is a masterclass in acting. 

Due to 15 years vanishing in the blink of an eye, and the high production values, at one point it looks like the now ubiquitous Martin Freeman is going to leap from Joanna Page’s house to an ice rink in a seamless segue from film to those annoying mobile phone adverts. And then there’s the OTT nativity which has been ripped off by countless ad teams since. (No kiddie plugs jumping into walls here like a current ad, but the tone is just as cute/daft). 

Love Actually’s success is the fact Curtis keeps so many plates spinning for the duration, and yes, it’s at times pure soap/sitcom, but it’s also his most successful film, not least because of that powerful score. 
Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon’s chemistry is glorious, while it’s great to be reminded of Liam Neeson’s comedic skills in the days when he broke hearts instead of arms in assorted action thrillers. And Andrew Lincoln gives one of his best turns in those pre-zombie-bashing Walking Dead days. 
I’d also forgotten Richard Hawley gave a superb turn as Grant’s PM associate, years before becoming a Corrie regular as Johnny Connor. Or that Laura Linney’s ripped office colleague Rodrigo Santoro played the bald bay guy in the 300 movies. That’s the joy of revisiting any ’old’ film. The chance to see stars-in-waiting and reflect on how well cast a movie like this is. 

And full marks to Bill Nighy (as always) for his terrific turn as fading rocker Billy Mack. A fantastic, twitchy performance, especially alongside Gregor Fisher. 
I’ll admit I got something in my eye a few times. Maybe it was just dust, or the Comic Relief genius rebooting my cold, dead heart at the most magical time of the year. Either way, this is such a glorious present, I would happily experience the whole thing again in the future. And given the standing ovation and rapturous applause the orchestra received, I get the feeling I’m not the only one. 
As I keep my fingers crossed for a few extra quid in my next pay packet, this is one Christmas Bonus that came early. 
Outstanding, actually. 

An Interview with Anita Dobson

An Interview with Anita Dobson

Actress Anita Dobson is one of the stars of Hull New Theatre’s version of Cinderella. She talks to Roger Crow about a lifetime in showbusiness, the joy of panto, EastEnders, and what it’s like being married to Queen’s Brian May.

What can we look forward to when you play Hull?

Well at the moment it’s a very jolly company and we’re having a lot of fun putting putting it together. It’s starting to come together, which is really exciting. And I think it’s going to be such a lovely show.

We’ve got some fantastic dancers. They’re amazing. And It’s a lovely cast of principals, so fingers crossed it’s going to be all right.

And presumably your co-star Bernie Clifton will have his ostrich with him?

He certainly will. He is fabulous. I’m loving working with him. He’s just divine.

Where do you get the energy from?

It’s funny, I was talking to Bernie about that, because we are both of an age. I think it’s just about being positive. And actually wanting to be part of it; you still want to be a part of everything. And to feel that you’re having fun and it’s full of joy, so that’s why we’re here. And that’s were still doing it, and as long as my legs don’t give away, I will be here.

Is this your first panto in Hull?

It is my first. I’ve been here once before. I did a tour of Hello Dolly many years ago, and I came here for a week then. But I’ve never done a pantomime here so it’s my first time.

And we can expect to see more of you in 2019 is well?

Yes, I’m going to be in Annie in the New Year. The management that I’m working for are also the management that are doing this pantomime.

When they had an opening, because sadly one of the Chuckle Brothers died, and they needed another headliner, they rang me up, so I thought I’d come back out of the cupboard and do another pantomime. I couldn’t resist it, and I’ve never done Cinderella.

So it’s a case of going from Wicked to the Wicked Stepmother?

Yeah, I tend to play the baddie. It’s not a role that’s strange to me. I’m used to playing villains and The Snow Queen, and I’ll be playing Miss Hannigan in Annie, so I’m quite enjoying this part.

We never forget our first panto, so which was yours?

It was Aladdin, and it was at the Hackney Empire. I was about four years old. And I think I did most of the show in the aisle with the performers. It must’ve been wonderful for them. My grandad said to my mum, “I think she’s got sawdust in her blood”. Which is the reason I fell in love with performing. I just love the whole ideology of telling stories in such a fun way. And that’s what actors are. We’re all storytellers. Fairy stories are such wonderful stories.

The great thing about panto is the stories are going to stay with kids for the rest of their life.

Well I think so. That one stayed with me, and it’s a reason I’ve done so many pantomimes in my career – they are really, really important. Because children learn to love stories and learn to love fairytales and the characters, and find that they have a love of reading and a love theatre, then all to the good. It’s passing the baton on isn’t it?

There have been so many highlights in your career. What’s been a favourite?

I couldn’t just list one, there’s been loads. I’ve been very lucky because I kind of had my feet in both camps. I’ve done musicals and pantomimes and I’ve also done the Royal Shakespeare Company at the National, and quite heavy stuff. I’m a bit of a Jack of all trades really I suppose, but I wouldn’t like to list one over another. Doing Frozen at the National was one. Obviously EastEnders. My very first Aladdin. That was wonderful. Doing Charlie’s Aunt. The list is endless.

Have you had a chance to see any of the repeats of EastEnders on TV lately?

Do you know, I did catch a couple of them. It was a really strange feeling. I’m inordinately proud of them. Playing Angie was a huge highlight in my career. She was wonderful to play. But it was weird looking at her then, because obviously I’m a different animal now. I’m a lot older, my hair is a different colour. It was a bit like looking at a favourite cousin really. But I’m very proud of it. It’s lovely seeing it. And knowing that people are still watching, and wanting to see her again. People used to say to me, “Oh why don’t you go back (to the show)?”, and now, having her back on the screen, it’s solved that problem if you like.

How is it being married to the genius that is Brian May?

He is indeed a genius. It’s not easy because he’s got a brain the size of the world. He’s inordinately clever. His mum said to me actually when we got married, “Don’t think you’re marrying a rock star. You’re marrying an absent-minded professor”. And that’s what he is really. He could lecture you endlessly on Halley‘s Comet; on splitting the atom, dark matter, all sorts of things. On animal rights campaigning. On 3-D stereo cards. But he probably can’t remember where his car keys are. He is a bit like my dad was. ’The house is dead when mum’s not there’ kind of thing.

Gwilym Lee, who played Brian in the film Bohemian Rhapsody was quite amazing.

It was quite uncanny wasn’t it? A very, very good portrayal.

So who would you play you in the film of your life?

Oh my God, I have no idea. But it would be great fun finding her.

:: Anita Dobson can be seen in Cinderella at Hull New Theatre from December 6 to December 30, 2018. She returns in Annie at the same venue, April 1-6, 2019.