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Standing ovation as Hairspray the Musical rocks Royal and Derngate

Review: Hairspray. Royal and Derngate, Northampton (opening night January 31)

I had never seen Hairspray before. Yes, I know, I know. It’s one of the most popular musicals in the world, an award-winning tour de force combining fantastic music and storytelling and genuine social commentary that, although set in 1962 Baltimore, certainly still resonates today.

But musicals…? You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, right?

“Just admit that you loved it Mum and write ‘It was great’ over and over until you hit the word count,” suggested my 13-year-old, musical-theatre fan daughter.

“And don’t call me a fan, I’m not a fanatic.” (This is what you get bringing up four kids with two journalist parents). “And don’t call me a kid…”

photography by Mark Senior

OK, so it was great. Really great. You don’t need to go to the West End when the West End comes to Northampton. I was blown away by the skill of the huge cast – more than 20 on stage for complex yet seamless dance sequences, belting out song after song from the best known You Can’t stop the Beat finale to the intricate Mama I’m a Big Girl Now and I Know Where I’ve Been.

The show opens in ‘60s Baltimore, Maryland, with ‘gently plump’ schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad (Katie Brace) belting out Good Morning Baltimore with her trademark black flick beehive, observing the flashers, rats and alcoholics before heading home to agoraphobic mum Edna (a drag role played by Alex Bourne) and joke-shop owner dad Wilbur (Norman Pace, yes, the one from Hale and Pace, all you people of a certain age).

photography by Mark Senior

Tracy and her best pal, Penny (Rebecca Jayne-Davies, aforementioned daughter’s favourite actor of the night), tune in their TV to the Corny Collins Show, a teen dance programme, based a on a real, American Bandstand-esque show of the time. Tracy and Penny yearn to get on the show, but detention, mean girl Amber (Jessica Croll) and her pushy TV producer mother Velma (Rebecca Thornhill), plus a massive dollop of classism, racism and body-shaming, look like killing their dream.

photography by Mark Senior

But Tracy bunks off school, meets heartthrob Link (understudy Joshua Pearson did an excellent job on first night) and makes a big impression on show host Corny (Richard Meek), as well as winning the show lots more fans and a plus size clothing contract. Cue loads of amazing costume changes (bravo Takis).

photography by Mark Senior

But Tracy’s stardom is short-lived. With and with the help of Motormouth Maybelle (the extraordinary Brenda Edwards), her kids Seaweed (Reece Richards) and Little Inez (the very talented Charlotte St Croix) and others segregated by their race (despite it being over 100 years since slavery was abolished in the southern states), they storm the show and a riot sees everyone locked up. (Locked up for protesting? How very now…) Cue a race to escape and get everyone live on air for the TV show finale.  

photography by Mark Senior

Hairspray the Musical came after John Water’s cult film of 1988, which starred Ricki Lake as Tracy, Debbie Harry as Amber and drag icon Divine (in his last role) as Edna.  Waters was to cut through the discrimination of the 60s still evident in the 80s, from racism to gay rights.  

Today’s Hairspray does the same, skewering the biases and bigotry with a riotously funny musical. Bourne and Pace have a hilarious chemistry and comic timing as Edna and Wilbur, while Brenda Edwards’ voice during Maybelle’s protest ballad I Know Where I’ve Been moved many to tears – such is her power (and yes, she’s the one off Loose Women, The X-Factor and Songs of Praise). Newcomer Katie Brace as Tracy is a total star – from her voice to her movement and acting with every inch of her face. You also can’t take your eyes off Charlotte St Croix (Little Inez), who I’m confident will be one to watch.

Brenda Edwards as Maybelle

There’s not enough space here to name them all but it’s an incredible cast at the top of their game – from the skill of the dancers on a relatively small stage to the live band who sometimes appear as part of the show – we’re really very lucky to have the Royal and Derngate for these top-of-their-game touring shows.

It WAS great!

Book now if you can, it’s on until Saturday (February 5) with tickets from Derngate Box Office or on 01604 624811.

Cobblers fall short on stormy, smoky night at Sixfields

The smoke filtered up into the Sixfields air, with rain teeming down, indicative of Cobblers’ season burning down to an ember and being extinguished.

Whether it was a Cobblers’ fan or a Mansfield supporter who invaded the pitch is by the by, as Northampton’s playoff push ended in valiant but tired defeat.

Everyone at Northampton Town had thrown it all at the playoffs after being shoplifted of automatic promotion by a Scunny team who were not so much on the beach as riding jet skis in the sea while drinking pina coladas and smoking Montecristo cigars.

The shoe army massed in Carr’s Bar before the match, with a thumping 90’s beat from the Sixfields Sound DJ in a bid to revive the ghosts of playoff games past at Sixfields where Town just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Yet, there are none of the massive characters of Ian Atkins’ side or indeed the heavyweight impact of the likes of John Gayle who Akkers could rely to have games won via intimidation in the tunnel.

Jon Brady’s Cobblers side are far more subtle and that nuance was etched with fatigue after the longest of long seasons.

Northampton’s talented foursome of Sam Hoskins, Louis Appéré, Josh Eppiah and Mitchell Pinnock started and Cobblers bossed some 62% of possession but one shot on goal hinted at Cobblers uneasy relationship with the goal over the entire season.

While the shoe army did their best to keep their side going there was a dullness to the Cobblers showing with various features falling flat. Sam Hoskins’ set-pieces just didn’t hit the mark, the ball just wouldn’t fall for Appéré and Eppiah looked like his injury problems had caught up with him.

The one bright spark on a night of smouldering pyrotechnics was local lad Shaun McWilliams who patrolled the central-midfield with ankle biting assurance. His first touch was spot on where others weren’t and any higher-level scouts watching the soon to be free agent would have drained their pens of ink on a performance which was out of this league.

A Mansfield goal was always going to be a killer and so it came on a night when the match officials drew the ire of the home faithful with their decisions. Cobblers’ fans in the West Stand will never believe that Steve McLaughlin’s goal was onside, with at least one Stags player down the right flank appearing to be beyond the final Northampton defender.

Yet, the end to Northampton’s season has been tinged with the unjust and the roar that started the game developed into despairing cries as the season disappeared into the ether.

While Nigel Clough had the luxury of substitutes that wasted time in teeming rain, Brady’s bench was threadbare and suggestive of a team which has been running on fumes for some time. Ex-Mansfield forward Danny Rose brought on with an hour gone to win a couple of flicks and to generally fall over a lot, the big strapping Cardiff-loanee Chanka Zimba lost in the moment and unable to sort his feet when in on goal.

It wasn’t actually a pyro that came on the pitch at the end as pyro means a burning flame, just a bog-standard orange smoke bomb (which no self-respecting Cobbler would brandish) but as it unloaded its garish payload there was time to reflect on a season so near yet so far.

The old age themes revolve at the Cobblers, actually keeping the team together for a change, investing in facilities at a creaking ground, tempting back the part-time fans and giving Jon Brady the platform that he most definitely deserves. 

Champions next season, that old age refrain of the rain sodden Cobblers fans who in their loyalty to watch footballs flying past floodlights, rarely realise their trainers are absolutely soaked.

In praise of Jon Brady, the considered Aussie with a Bear heart and a playoff dream still alive

Jon Brady was born in Newcastle, Australia that is, and he ain’t no Magpie but a Cobbler.

His youth football club down under was the beautifully titled Adamstown Rosebuds but now he’s found his place in the Rose Of The Shires. 

Brady’s face isn’t the easy expression of the laid-back surfers on Newcastle beach in New South Wales, his is the grizzled visage of too many games down the flank at Nene Park and on the Cobblers’ training pitches at Moulton.

He would fit in, in the Bear public house in Northampton town centre, quietly spoken, considered, not one to suffer fools gladly but liable to raise a wry smile in the right company.

Brady got the Cobblers job just a week after they’d been relegated from League 1 at Blackpool in May 2021. It was through no fault of his own but the emotion ran clean and true through the adopted Northamptonian as, for once, his measured approach gave way with tears welling in his eyes like beer in the drip trays of the Bear.

“It’s so raw right now for me. I’ve given everything I’ve got for this football club, I’ve given it all the hours under the sun, pushed my family aside for this”

The Cobblers had been through the John Scarrott funfair season of merry-go-round managers, ending up with Keith Curle, whose football, although partially effective, was jarring for Town fans who were playing better stuff on the racecourse on a Sunday.

A pragmatic Brady didn’t change things massively, but alongside behind-the-scenes upgrades saw a team develop that the shoe army could buy into. 

Colin Calderwood in as assistant, the vastly experienced ex-Spurs defender who had won promotion with the Cobblers in another life as manager. Marc Richards in to support, a lower-league legend of a forward who could still probably do a job now.

The holy trinity of Pinnock, Appere and Eppiah brought in for their technique and ball moving ability which came to a head at Leyton Orient, where the O’s were smoked in front a Cobblers faithful on the lash in the capital.

There have been missteps along the way of course, for this rookie Football League manager who was booking the hotels himself and various other workaday tasks when boss of Brackley.

A couple of dubious substitutions and some harsh words about youth product Scott Pollock which may have been better left unsaid. Some fans have questioned his tactical ability at League level but he’s ridden it out like those last winter waves in Newcastle and now Town are one game away from Wembley.

That’s the way to look at it for Cobblers, who although 2-1 down from the League Playoff Semi Final at Field Mill, are still very much in the tie. John Gayle at Bristol Rovers showed us that.

While pressure-cooked opposition managers and strangely obsessed fans of opposition teams have been covering anxiety with loud voices, Brady has kept his council.  

If Northampton Town do make Wembley and do the business under the arch then it’ll be just rewards for a team and a gaffer who’ve suffered a Brinks Mat level robbery of automatic promotion.

Yet, if they do fall short, it will be sad on a sporting level but no-one will hold a grudge after this fine season polished with dignity, stubbornness and trust felt emotion of a boss who quietly shoulders everything like those old face labourers and scaffolders who enjoy their pints at the pubs in town if you know where to look.

I never would have expected Saints to beat Quins like this

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There have been two or three games lately where afterwards I’ve been saying to people “that is the best Saints have played this season” and now there is another to add to the mix.

For the fast half Saints crackled and popped, mixing hard straight lines with smart passing, safe hands and blistering pace.

The second half was more about hanging on against the kings of the comeback in the face of injuries and depleted energy but still managing to conjure up points from somewhere. Could Saints really out-Quins Quins?

Player of the Match Alex Mitchell really emptied the tank, delivering a ruck speed that according to the pundits was three seconds faster than Quins for the first 40.

He even boldly took on his opposite number Danny Care – very much The Don of English scrum-halves – in a one on one footrace for the line.

As Mitchell pinned his ears back with the ball tucked under his arm it was clearly a choice he made, nine versus nine, attempting to burn his way round Care on the outside.

There was a little bit of devilment and audacity about it but the old dog was not quite ready to go from champ to chump just yet and smashed Mitchell into touch with a fine tackle. He helped Mitchell up afterwards with a generous smile.

If Saints have learned anything however, it is a way of accepting those humbling moments and not letting them take the wind out of their sails. You’re not a fighter if you can’t take a punch.

The way both players left the field told its own story. Mitchell came off exhausted halfway through the second half to warm applause from the home fans. Care was dismissed seconds from the end, grumpily dissenting with the referee as the match slipped beyond the grasp of Quins. One on one Care might have bested Mitchell but arguably the young pretender gave more to his team than the veteran.

Saints match report

Juarno Augustus, Conor Carey, Paul Hill, Alex Coles, Fraser Dingwall were all lost to injuries adding another dimension to the drama as the bench began to look threadbare. The disciplined ferocity of Lawes and Ludlam kept Quins hands full defensively as Saints incredible first half energy waned in the second.

It felt like the product of so many hard learned lessons when Saints opted to take the tricky long penalty to nudge their noses ahead on the scoreboard in the final minutes. James Grayson (living the rollercoaster life of a fly-half in waiting – sometimes we don’t want anything from him, now we want everything from him) steps up and slots home with nerve and skill.

A huge roar went up at the final whistle and the normally taciturn Saints coaching staff were jubilant. Saracens and Newcastle and the final hurdles between Saints and a top four finish. They are going to be tough games but Saints are starting to show they can win those.

Pictures by Dave Ikin

The Mobbs Memorial match in pictures

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If the Charge of the Light Brigade taught us one thing about the history of the British Army it’s that it knows how to style out a valiant defeat.

The return of the historic Mobbs Memorial fixture after a two-year Covid hiatus was indeed a valiant defeat for the visitors but this is a game where the real victory is that is happened at all.

For the army it represents the best possible test before their upcoming game with the Royal Navy and for Saints, bereft of the Wanderers as a place for players to work themselves into form and fitness, it represents a valuable outing for a mixture of old faces and new.

See the Saints match report here

Big T scored twice, putting a little heat under hopes that he may yet contribute to a last push from the first team this season. His first try, steaming onto a crossfield kick from Grayson and continuing his unstoppable path to the line, would have been impressive against any opponents.

Without doubt the close of this season will mark the end of an era at Saints with a number of beloved squad members on their way and of course the semi-departure of Chris Boyd who is stepping back into a more consultative role when Phil Dowson takes the helm.

Some rugby fans will always be sceptical about southern hemisphere coaches bringing their fancy dan ideas to the north, and will say they expect more silverware than Boydy has delivered.

But those kind of criticisms, against the chaotic background of the past few years of challenges at Saints, are like a backhanded compliment. He has painstakingly rebuilt the club’s confidence around a more modern and fluid style of rugby and now here we are in the final quarter of his last season with plenty still to play for. I think he deserves some silverware out of this as much as the fans do.

Pictures by Dave Ikin

How being Northamptonshire’s Young Chef of the Year propelled Ellie Galloway to a new level

When Ellie Galloway collected Young Chef of the Year in the Weetabix Food and Drink Awards it would be an understatement to say she was surprised.

It was the first year she had entered the awards (this year’s competition launches today at The Falcon Inn in Castle Ashby) and she knew how rare a straight win is for anyone’s first try.

However her chicken and smoked ham pies in gravy, including Jeyes Northamptonshire Sauce, were judged the best and she won not only the award but perhaps more importantly a boost in confidence that has pushed her towards new challenges.

Ellie, who was chef at The Church in Northampton when she won back in October, is now working at the Michelin starred House of Tides restaurant in Newcastle which is owned by Great British Menu veteran Kenny Atkinson.

“The Food Awards has massively influenced where I am. I always had it in the back of my mind I would like to try Michelin Star but I have never had the guts to do it.

“I thought okay I’ll go for the Weetabix Food and Drink Awards. I had been wanting to do it but it had never really been the right time so I went for it and I won it which was completely unexpected. I really didn’t think I was going to especially on first year. I am so grateful for it. So I thought if I can do this what else can I do? I have won it I ought to use it. I don’t think I would have done this if I hadn’t gone for the award,” said Ellie.

Taking a leap of faith she left her job at The Church and began looking for a new challenge.

“I left the end of November, start of December. I didn’t take a job right away, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I have had an inkling to try the fine dining for a while but never had the guts to try it. I kept December free because when as a chef do you get December off? So I selfishly took that but then I got in touch with a Michelin starred restaurant to see if I could do a stage [work experience] with them for a month.  It’s classic British produce done really well. It has been incredible. They have offered me a job as a Commis so I am going to be taking that. I am going to be starting in May and hopefully working my way up!”

Ellie, who comes from Wellingborough, went to school in Kettering and then Northampton College, has family in Newcastle who were able to provide somewhere to stay while she was getting her experience in the House of Tides kitchen. The restaurant which also boasts four AA rosettes alongside its Michelin Star, is unlike anywhere Ellie has worked so far.

“It is a really nice kitchen to be in, so if I don’t know and I do get something wrong I don’t get battered. I get told how to do it so the next time it’s right. I wasn’t really expecting that. I was expecting to be bottom of the pile but it is a kitchen that is known for bringing people into the industry. The four weeks has just flown by.

“It’s very intricate and things have to be exact. A lot of things I am not noticing yet because I haven’t got the eye for it. I will take it to the sous chef or the head chef and they will tell me the difference.

“Everything is so beyond prepped, so service is just like a flow. I don’t think I have ever worked somewhere that is so prepped because obviously they have got so much on the line, every dish that goes out has to be same. It is quite incredible to be fair.”

Ellie’s journey into catering is the classic story of the child who loved to cook never giving up on it.

“I have grown up with everyone in my family being able to cook. As soon as they let me do a roast dinner I did it. I used to go round to my grandmas and cook with her.  I grew up always wanting to be a chef and they thought I’d grow out of it but I didn’t. They told me the hours were long and the pay is not great and a couple of months before the awards I was feeling that way a bit, but when I won I thought: ‘I might be ok at this, I better stick with it’.”

Thank goodness she did because that determination has now carried her into a world of fine dining and working with celebrity chefs.

Kenny Atkinson gives a cooking demo for the Foodie Book Club during lockdown

“I wasn’t expecting to see much of Kenny Atkinson but he has come over and said hello to me. Whenever he is in the building he makes the effort to come and see everyone which I think is quite incredible,” said Ellie.

“I don’t know whether I’d want my own restaurant. It’s very difficult. I might prefer to work as a head chef under someone else.

“I really like British classic dishes. I’ve worked a lot in pubs where we do fresh food. It’s basically like getting really nice produce that is local, which means a lot to me, that we’re not just shipping it in from somewhere else because we have such a lot of good produce in this country. I always go for belly pork myself. I love it. It’s classic. Always a winner.”

Get more information about the Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards here

A game that meant something more than the scoreline

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There was little chance of rescuing the Premiership Cup campaign when a young Saints side welcomed Newcastle Falcons to Franklin’s Gardens last night.

However, hot on the heels of a thrilling cup victory against Saracens came this thrilling victory over Newcastle, and even though it wasn’t enough to progress in the cup it still added plenty of value to the life of Saints fans.

Match report here

It was a reminder of what it feels like to have a strong Wanderers side powering the club forwards. It was a chance for James Grayson to step up as captain. It was a moment to reflect on how different the season might have felt if these wins had come at the start of the cup campaign instead of the end.

Pictures by Dave Ikin

It’s another thriller but this time Saints are the winners

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Sometimes they are brilliant, sometimes they are crazy. That’s young people for you. The celebration of Alex Waller’s 231st appearance (a Premiership record) for Saints underlined it: there aren’t that many wizened old campaigners in green, black and gold.

There are, however, a few wizened young campaigners and Dave Ribbans on 100 games for Saints proved it with a Player of the Match performance.

Saints match report is here

The feel of the game was not that different to the past three performances. Scrums and lineouts were pretty reliable, Alex Mitchell was a handful, all the back line were a handful and yet the job was never completely done until the final whistle.

Dave Ikin was on hand to capture the action.

Risky rugby? I worry that we are too conservative – Chris Boyd

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Despite a run of three agonising last gasp defeats Northampton Saints Director of Rugby Chris Boyd is not wavering in his commitment to running rugby.

When asked if he was tempted to call on the players to adopt a “less risky” style in advance of a home clash with Wasps at the weekend he defiantly doubled down on his belief in an approach that is earning Saints more admirers than wins at the moment.

“I worry that we are too conservative in the back third of the field and don’t take enough opportunity that is presented to us. We’re now moving the game through the middle third of the field quite nicely, we’ve got to get better at both ends of the field and it doesn’t necessarily mean playing less. It might mean playing more,” he said, reflecting on a performance against Gloucester that while dazzling in attack also included some “catastrophic” defensive slip-ups.

This is not a ‘head in the sand’ response. He is asking us to reconsider what we mean by ‘risky rugby’.

“It depends what you think risk is. The try that Tom Collins ultimately scored started from our five metre line but came from three or four passes into space. If you’ve got space you’ve got to use it and I don’t consider that risky play.

“If you ask me what went wrong, we dealt with their maul for the first sixty minutes and then failed to do so at the end. If we are going to be critical of ourselves they scored five tries and only required two rucks to score five tries. We made some catastrophic defensive mistakes. We got a line out horribly wrong at the start of the game.”

It’s no consolation to the staff and players at Saints that it is a fascinating coaching problem. They are a team of master safe-crackers who forget to lock their own front door, or the side gate… or the living room window…

No-one is hurting more than the players after these cruel twists of fate and you need more in your coaching manual than a commandment not to make mistakes. So what do you say?

“When you’ve got a philosophy and an approach to a game the most important thing is that everyone is still rowing the boat in the same direction together. When you have had three or four losses in a row like we have you have got to make sure to check in that: are we still aligned, do we still believe in what we are doing, do we still trust each other to deliver a lot of the parts that are going on? What are the issues, how are we going to deal with them?

“We have actually had a couple of very good conversations in the past couple of weeks around that. To the credit of the players they are incredibly frustrated and disappointed but there is no lip on the ground. You have just got to roll your sleeves up and do it. Everybody wants to win every game don’t they?”

Lock Alex Coles who has put in some dynamic performances at six confirmed how the players are feeling: “It was pretty painful to be honest. We’ve had a few sleepless nights thinking about it. After the game we were just trying to get our heads around it. Boydy said we have got to stay together as a team, you don’t solve these problems by infighting and going at each other. We need to have honest conversations and everyone is accountable. We need to get together and find solutions. The fans aren’t happy about it and neither are we. We want to put some smiles back on faces at the Gardens.”

Saints play Wasps on Sunday at Franklin’s Gardens.

Sign up for Cycle4Cynthia as it returns to Althorp in September

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Cycle4Cynthia, the flagship fundraising event organised by Cynthia Spencer Hospice Charity to raise money to support the care provided by the hospice, will take place at the Althorp Estate on Sunday 25th September 2022 with organisers promising lots of exciting new additions to the event.

Event organiser Sarah Denston explained some of the changes that have been made to offer more choice to riders including a new route: “We’ve planned to add a 10 mile route for some time as we know many of our younger participants have wanted to ride this distance and we’re very pleased that our hosts, Althorp have helped make this possible. 

“For those tired, aching legs we’ll be providing a massage station which we’re sure will be very welcome to our riders when they’ve finished their routes while for the little ones we’ll have a bouncy castle, face painting stall and other attractions so families can make even more memories of their day.”

The 2021 event, the first live event the hospice charity had been able to hold since the start of the pandemic, raised £40,043 for the hospice. ‘Team Rawsthorne’, who raised £1,937 in memory of Tom Rawsthorne, who passed away in 2020 after a long battle with cancer, come out as the top fundraising team.

Tom’s brother, Sam said: “Tom and I originally did the Cycle4Cynthia ride together in 2013 when he had first beaten his cancer but unfortunately it came back again and Tom sadly passed away in March 2020, after receiving care from Cynthia Spencer’s hospice@home team.  It’s incredible what the nurses do, it’s so important at that time, especially near the end as it’s very stressful for families so making sure someone’s at ease, it’s massive, it really is.

“The hospice is something everyone in Northampton can relate to and connect to so we didn’t have to do a lot of banging on doors to raise money! We shared our fundraising page on social media and with help from friends we spread the word to reach a great fundraising total. A team of us representing Tom will definitely be signing up for this year’s Cycle4Cynthia too!” 

Anita Frith, director of income generation explains why it’s so important that as many people as possible get on their bikes for the hospice this year: “The last two years have been extremely challenging for our charity to ensure we are still able to support the amazing care that the hospice provides to the people of Northamptonshire. We’re still recovering from the effects of the pandemic and what we really need is the support of the people of Northamptonshire to help the hospice, just like the hospice has been there for them and their families over the years.

“We’ve thrown down a challenge to everyone taking part to try and raise at least £250 each and if everybody manages this, the total fundraising will make a huge impact on our annual fundraising for the hospice.”
Registration is open now and riders can grab their places by visiting https://www.cynthiaspencer.org.uk/event/C4C2022 or by contacting the fundraising team on 01604 973340 or fundraising@cynthiaspencer.co.uk