Mr and Mrs Sparks and the Emperor’s Panda

OLLIE THICKNESSE and CATRIONA STIRLING have great fun with this fast-paced musical.

China Musical. Corpus panda student writing

Corpus Playroom, 9.30 PM, February 11th-15th, £6/5.

We’re just going to put this out there, because there’s nothing worse than reading a review that spends the first two paragraphs summarising the plot and spoiling the surprises: we loved Mr and Mrs Sparks and the Emperor’s Panda. This show left us very happy indeed; it was creative, dynamic and fun.

panda

Where to begin? Martha Bennet is to be applauded for her outstanding direction. Given the circumstances – i.e. that the writers also playing the lead roles – this show could have been guilty of complacency or lack of clarity but the direction was excellent. We have never seen the delightfully weird setting of Corpus used so well in any production: the physical movement was superb, and the actors were able to create a real sense of location. The chase sequence in the first few scenes was indicative of this: creative use of the space, convincing, endearing, and, above all, funny. The movement was strong overall, whether it was the flamboyant dance numbers or acting out a tired cry; everything was very well thought through and the audience were constantly engaged.

This was also the best use of tech we have ever seen in Corpus – even Ollie could run out of superlatives. The sound effects, projection and lighting were very effective and never gratuitous. The writing was self-aware, warm and innovative (AND there were some great puns). It felt seamless, and looked amazingly professional; the costumes themselves were inspired. The set and props were also just right – enough to be interesting but no danger of over crowding. Everything was very well conceived and integrated; the show felt balanced and cohesive as a whole. And, as a CUMTS funded venture, we enjoyed the presence a brilliant three-piece band, led by the incomparably suave Xavier Hetherington (with his incomparable moustache).

Such was the dynamism of the show that despite it’s fluidity it felt improvised: Clark and Young worked well together and their obvious ease with one another made the audience comfortable throughout the show (even during the slightly slow beginning). They were having fun; we were having fun: it was top. Young was particularly impressive and appeared to be the engine behind the show’s immense energy. At times, there were slight stumbles, yes: but the actors had built up such a loveable rapport with the audience by then that this all seemed rather incidental. Moreover, the fact that the actors weren’t afraid to improvise throughout these minor errors, and turn them to their advantage, was charming.

Of course, there were flaws. To be frank, given that this was a musical, we couldn’t help but feel that the songs would have been more successful if the cast had stronger voices; at moments, certain notes seemed a bit of a strain on Mr and Mrs Sparks; these were the only moments of the show where Clark and Young looked remotely under confident – we imagine this will fix itself as the run progresses. Linked to this comes minor issue #2: although Corpus can obviously do without mics for the dialogue, perhaps the songs would have been improved with a touch more volume; it seemed a little quiet at points. This was a particular shame as the songs were excellent and well written – perhaps corresponding to an over all trend in as much as the writing, direction etc were excellent but at times the execution wasn’t quite so strong. Again, as Clark and Young (and the versatile, french-horn-playing Chris Born) become even more confident in their material and focus themselves that little bit more, this could be a 5 star show by the end of the week.

The writers intended this to be a joyous affair, and they did not disappoint. With Week Five looming, (and the impending risk of spending Valentine’s Day alone), you would be foolish not to see this show.