I read with interest remarks attributed to Sir Matthew Bourne, apparently at the Olivier Awards 2019, in which he paid tributes to his parents who took him to the theatre in his formative years, even if it was always the cheaper seats in the top tier. The exact words were: “I'm just an East End boy who had great parents who took him to the London theatre as a young man. Always in the cheapest seats at the top of the theatre, but that mattered not one bit.” In my own formative years, a friend and I were in central London one evening wanting to go to the pictures in Leicester Square. But we had mistimed ourselves and not having consulted the film listings beforehand, missed the 6pm/6.30pm-ish screenings of what we wanted to see, and with the next screenings not until 8.30pm/9pm, we turned our attention instead to the 7.30pm starts in Theatreland.
Going into the Dominion Theatre, I had no idea who Matthew Bourne was at the time, but he had a show on there called Swan Lake, and we thought it was worth a shot. I made enquiries as to what the cheapest seats were for that evening’s performance. I made my excuses and left: I wouldn’t want to pay £45 to sit in the gods in 2019 with a full-time job let alone in 2000 as a student. We plumped for Les Misérables, at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where the cheapest seats at the time were about £11. Being a novice theatregoer, I hadn’t thought to ask what the running time was, and in those days ‘Les Mis’ didn’t let out until 10.45pm. And that’s where my own love of live theatre started.
I didn’t hold anything against Matthew Bourne then, and I hold nothing against him now with regards to not having been able to afford to see his show when he himself was able to sit in the cheap seats in his own student days. If a production can be profitable (and a great many aren’t) then it should go for it – it’s a simple case, for me at least, of supply and demand. And anyway, he hasn’t done too badly, as far as I can tell! Nineteen winters (to sort of quote ‘Les Mis’) later I find myself sat in the (not so) New Wimbledon Theatre, having forked out £48, albeit to sit in Row A of the Stalls, to see a touring production of Swan Lake. It’s the third production I’ve seen of it, the others being an English National Ballet production at the Royal Albert Hall, and a Royal Opera House production.
I get why it’s so popular, inasmuch as I get it in the first place. The programme has no synopsis, unlike the programmes for most ballets, mostly if not entirely because it doesn’t need one. Not that there aren’t elements of the show that are open to the viewer’s perception and interpretation, but this radical adaptation, if I may call it that, has both simplified and clarified a number of narrative points. It’s a different Swan Lake, departing from the usual female ballerinas as swans to having a lake full of male swans instead. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a slight viciousness and bravado that would have been difficult to achieve with lady swans.
My ears are fairly well accustomed to piped in music (it happens in the plays and musicals of ‘fringe’ and ‘pub’ theatre quite regularly) but there was something odd about recorded music being used here. Granted, the costs of an orchestra accompanying the cast on this touring production would have been considerable. But, at the risk of causing a proverbial volcano to erupt, I can’t help wondering what the Musicians’ Union make of being deprived of playing Tchaikovsky’s music live. But that is my only real gripe in an otherwise enthralling evening of movement and extraordinary skill, and ultimately, I can only join the queue of those in praise of this riveting rendering of a ballet classic.
The pot calling the kettle black
One can’t get to everything, and according to Tutku Barbaros who writes for ‘The Tung’, that makes me a “dickhead”, because there’s a double-bill of shows out there that she rather liked, and I’m not reviewing it. The “dickhead” allegation isn’t just for me but for every reviewer who hasn’t seen Killymuck and Box Clever at The Bunker Theatre, presumably including other reviewers who write for ‘The Tung’ that also haven’t seen it. It’s not actually libellous, because if it were, there would have to be some reputational damage sustained as a direct result of her remarks. I see no evidence of that to date.
The artistic director of The Bunker Theatre, Chris Sonnex, agrees with Barbaros’ stance, in which she (Barbaros) also complains that while a million people marched in the anti-Brexit rally recently (untrue: there were a lot of people there, but less than a million), there were empty seats at The Bunker Theatre on the night she went. Well, for one thing, the anti-Brexit rally was free to attend – N-O-T-H-I-N-G is free at The Bunker Theatre. Also, the organisers got the word out, so people knew about it. And the rally was at a decent time of day – I’m told the second play in the double-bill doesn’t start until 9pm, so it is not surprising that some booked for the short play at 7.30pm and not the longer one after it. Oh, and it’s not possible to get a thousand people into The Bunker Theatre, let alone a ‘million’. Perhaps Barbaros and Sonnex think audiences are dickheads as well, just for wanting to get home at a reasonable hour. They might as well criticise people for not attending every single production at the Edinburgh Festivals (the ‘Fringe’ alone has well over 3,000 in the space of four weeks). Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
For the record, Killymuck and Box Clever, the alleged ‘must see’ double-bill, have not been universally applauded. Rob Warren for ‘Everything Theatre’ writes as though he might have left early had he not been reviewing: “…come the end it’s a relief rather than a pleasure”. Niamh Flynn for ‘Upper Circle’ wasn’t keen on Killymuck: “[Kat] Woods’ material feels overcrowded and at times hard to follow”. David James for ‘London City Nights’ gave the double-bill four stars, though this seemed more connected with the political stance of the plays, which happened to be aligned with his own: “You should come out of these shows with a burning desire to prevent any Tory politician from ever seeing a glimpse of office so long as they live”. Viva socialism! (And do I really need a whole show to tell me that the left-wing utterly hate the right-wing?)
In the end, I come down on the side of fellow reviewers. There are many shows in any given week to choose from, and with snobbish and hate-filled attitudes like those displayed by Barbaros and Sonnex, I’d rather go to a theatre where I can reasonably expect to be treated with civility. What Barbaros and Sonnex do not acknowledge is that both Killymuck and Box Clever were reviewed very extensively and very positively at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and those reviews are out there for anyone to see. For instance, Steven Fraser for ‘The Wee Review’ deemed Box Clever to have “a fantastic script that is expertly delivered by the two performers” and Olivia Cooke for ‘Ed Fringe Review’ thought Killymuck was “an hour of pure theatrical perfection”.
Show with soldiers #1: Billy Bishop Goes To War
I’d heard good things about Billy Bishop Goes To War, and the (very) good thing about having a couple of days away from the reviewing circuit is that it allowed me to catch something I would have missed completely – the press nights for both this production’s Jermyn Street Theatre and Southwark Playhouse runs being allocated to other reviewers on account of me seeing other shows elsewhere on the same night. (This isn’t unusual – there are often multiple press nights on the same date. On an evening in May 2019, for instance, I’ll be at Barons Court Theatre for Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, so other reviewers will be at the press nights on the same date for Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! at Battersea Arts Centre (a provocative title, I know) and the colourfully titled Fuck You Pay Me at The Bunker Theatre – I don’t think they’d want me there anyway, given my above response to their recent communications).
As for Billy Bishop Goes To War, it is, apparently, one of the most widely produced shows in Canadian theatre since it premiered there in 1978. It’s not difficult to see why. Billy in World War One (Charles Aitken) is very much the colonial hero, fighting for the British Empire and its allies against the German Empire and its allies, though by his own admission he’s not the brightest person to rise through the ranks. Billy in World War Two (Oliver Beamish) looks back on the events of the past, including a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (superseded by the RAF in April 1918). Thus, the audience already knows Billy made it, unlike many, many, many other soldiers.
There are, especially in the last few years with the centenary of the beginning of World War One and centenaries for milestones along the way before the centenary of Armistice Day, a lot of plays about war and soldiering that have been produced. This one at least has something different to offer in the experiences of Billy Bishop (1894-1956), credited with 73 victories. Particularly interesting, and somewhat amusing, was the culture shock he received when he spent time in London. The show does poignancy and poetry, too, especially in its tribute to Albert Ball (1896-1917), a British fighter pilot acclaimed even by the Germans.
It’s classed as a musical, though there wasn’t a list of musical numbers in the show’s programme. But even if there was one, I’d still class it as a play with songs. There are seventeen characters in addition to Billy that the two actors play between them, and although it comes across at times as sheer propaganda, it has a lot of heart.
Show with soldiers #2: Violet
I stand by what I said in my review in January 2019. I enjoyed it sufficiently to grant it a second visit, and this was a ‘muck-up matinee’ as they ought to be, inasmuch as I didn’t notice anything different (though I had my suspicions) and there wasn’t anything that changed the narrative in any way, or outrageous for the sake of outrageousness. The only obviously noticeable thing was musical director Dan Jackson’s cowboy outfit at the curtain call, which made the entire cast beam and grin.
Presented to an early twenty-first century audience, some of its language (the musical is set in Spruce Pine, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964) is of its time and there’s a shock factor in such overt racism being portrayed on stage. But that’s how it was, of course. I was rather chuffed for the opportunity to do a random act of kindness after the show: Matthew Harvey, one of the cast members, is running the London Marathon 2019 in aid of Dog’s Trust. As I didn’t have any spare change on me (having used it all up at the self-service checkout), I had that awkward moment of meeting Harvey on the way out as he stood with a collection bucket. Faced with the choice of pretending to ignore he was there or slipping him some paper money, I opted for the latter. I think he liked it.
Show with soldiers #3: Fiddler on the Roof
Yes, it’s really about Teyve (a most engaging Andy Nyman) and his family during the 1905 Russian Revolution rather than the soldiers who were under orders from the Russian Imperial Government. Being part of a Jewish community, Teyve and his folks and friends (and foes) are told to leave their village of Anatevka and resettle outside Russia (in other words, ethnic cleansing). A sort of sympathetic Constable (Craig Pinder) at least gives them as much notice as he is able, so they are able to sell their property and possessions before moving out.
Certain members of the audience at the Saturday night performance I attended seemed very, very angry even before the show had started. One woman lost her temper at being told to move by a security officer who wanted to see that I didn’t have any bombs or guns or smelly food (etc) in my bag, and then loudly told her companions, “I hate them,” referring to the security officer and myself. I apologised – sarcastically, mind you – and while her companions stopped and acknowledged me, “Her Royal Highness” remained aloof.
On my way into the auditorium, a man was complaining to the front of house staff about the legroom in the stalls, saying it was insufficient for anyone over six foot tall. Having been directed in the general direction of my seat I simply carried on walking without hearing the outcome of that conversation. There does seem to be a legroom problem in the Playhouse Theatre, to be fair: it was quite impossible to let anyone in without not only getting up but moving out into the aisle. This didn’t stop a most unsympathetic member of staff shouting at people several times to sit down as the show was allegedly about to start. And I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people go to the theatre and loudly grumble all the way through in their seats instead of walking out. I had more respect for a man who said to his partner at the interval that they should find a pub – and off they went.
And the show? A cast of at least two-dozen plus an eight-piece orchestra (if you can call an eight-piece band an ‘orchestra’, as the show’s programme does) makes the stage seem very crowded, perhaps even more so in its previous incarnation in the smaller Menier Chocolate Factory. More entrances and exits seemed to be made through the centre aisle of the stalls more than stage left or stage right – on more than one occasion someone would walk to the rear of the stalls and then walk back onto the stage, which was (to be blunt) pointless and distracting. The lighting design could have been better in places – in the larger ensemble scenes there’s lots going on but not all of it could be seen! Worth seeing though, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen a live theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof before. Proper reviews, as ever, are available elsewhere, including ones from my good friends Terry Eastham and Emma Clarendon.
The thing about a small crowd at a comedy gig is that one could sit at the rear of the auditorium and still get picked on in the introductory, ‘hello, what’s your name, where do you come from and what do you do for a living?’ section. I probably look about as boring as I am – heartless bastard with no time or energy for a love life after the day job, then seeing 300 live performances a year and reviewing the vast majority of those (as if I have the money to pay to see 300 shows a year). So, I wasn’t asked to interact. I might as well have had the words ‘No Audience Participation’ printed on my forehead. The problem with that, of course, is that such a sign will be taken as an open invitation. I can’t win. Anyway, three acts performed at this ‘Comedy Round Mine April 2019’ (that’s honestly what it was called) at the Time and Leisure Studio in Wimbledon town centre, a handy twenty-minute walk home for me afterwards.
I got the impression Carly Smallman brings her comedy show to Wimbledon fairly often, but the Monday night slot is a bit of a graveyard one – I suspect even a Sunday night would have resulted in a few more people coming through the doors. Nonetheless, she managed to make some straightforward stories about how some couples sat in the front row met more amusing than they were with the benefit of hindsight, though one ‘couple’ wasn’t a couple at all. Having struck up a friendship whilst tending to adjacent allotments, the older man, an octogenarian, ‘adopted’ the younger woman, so his ‘daughter’ drives him around and generally makes sure he’s all right. Aww.
Wendy Wason spoke about what it is like to raise children – a challenging experience, to say the least. The parents in the room identified well with it all and people like me sat there and found her stories to be assuring affirmations of our decisions not to go down the route of getting married and raising a family. Out of context, some might have taken umbrage with the element in her routine of – in effect – taking the mickey out of the sort of things children with a limited worldview say. Her children, as everyone else’s are, are growing up quickly, and there are awkward moments to chuckle at, such as when she is introduced to ‘Grand Theft Auto’ by a child. Closing gambit: “always pay the prostitute”.
Joe Sutherland grew up in Coventry and later moved to the capital, but still finds misconceptions of what a same-sex relationship is like abound pretty much everywhere. His boyfriend is rather more muscular in appearance than he is – the boyfriend wasn’t there, so I must take Sutherland at his word. But what irritates Sutherland is that people like to assume, in so many words, that it’s the boyfriend that “wears the trousers”. The whole point, Sutherland muses, of a relationship that comprises two men, is that they both wear trousers, both literally and figuratively. Millennial culture and mannerisms also came in for a bit of a beating. A bittersweet but nonetheless enjoyable set.
Ninia Benjamin had come down from Chingford, and there was a lengthy description about how she dislikes the London Overground – miss one, and it’s a fifteen-minute wait – so was quite happy taking the Northern line to South Wimbledon (with a train every three minutes). She’s one of those people that portrays themselves as less intellectual than they really are. An example – confusing ‘Brexit’ for ‘breadsticks’, her argument in favour of Remain consisted of the potential loss of multipack chocolate bars that were made in the EU. I think that’s what it was, anyway – I had trouble keeping up with her quick-fire routine. She talked about her fanny quite a lot, too, and I did find a punchline about never becoming a vegan because, if I may put it slightly more politely than she did, semen is not plant-based. Certain vegans will grumble and say that it’s fine to swallow because no animals are harmed during blowjobs. But most people, irrespective of their dietary requirements, will recognise a joke for what it is.
People in the entertainment industry sometimes mention supporting local theatre – though I am in a relatively unique position of having the West End less than an hour away from my front door. But every so often it is a good thing to pop down to see something in one’s own part of the world.
I was trying to think what on earth would link a touring production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, a short play, Waking Up Dead, about the effects of domestic abuse on a previously gregarious young lady, and two concerts, the first being a whistle stop tour through the professional musical theatre career of Debbie Kurup, the second containing sixteen numbers from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Aside from being shows I went along to in the same weekend, they were all retrospective in nature.
To misquote Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hair is Hair is Hair, and all the elements from two previous productions I’ve had the privilege of seeing (Geoids Musical Theatre at the Bridewell in 2016, and before that, the Gielgud Theatre run in 2010) were present in this one from Aria Entertainment. Seeing it from the third row of the stalls, it might as well have been called Wigs. It was very energetic, though there wasn’t quite the same level of fourth-wall breaking that the Broadway cast that was brought over to Shaftesbury Avenue in 2010 achieved. But then, this is a British cast presenting Hair to a British audience. Yes, for the record, they all get their kit off prior to the interval.
A band of five, led by Gareth Bretherton, comprising keyboards, two guitars, drums and bass guitar, was occasionally supplemented by uncredited others. Berger (Jake Quickenden) started off very well but his stage presence wasn’t consistently maintained. At least his American accent was consistent throughout, which wasn’t the same for everyone. It’s tempting to name names, but I can’t be bothered to embarrass anyone. The stand-out performance for me came from Paul Wilkins’ Claude, with one of those singing voices that could listen to all day if only my life weren’t quite so busy.
Waking Up Dead is a play I’d seen twice before, put together by some local friends, one of whom is married to an ex-colleague (we both resigned – at different times – from the same company, and are infinitely happier having left that terrible workplace). The hasn’t had a huge amount of coverage, mostly because it has only been put on a handful of times by Safeword Theatre UK, still a small outfit as this is their debut production.
With after-show drinks and conversation that carried on until 2am (partly on account of British Summer Time kicking in at 1am), I’d not spent quite so much time in Wimbledon in some years. I got to New Wimbledon Theatre for Hair just prior to the 2:30pm start of the matinee performance and stayed in the town centre for dinner before shooting off to the evening show. When I arrived, the Mayor of Merton, Councillor Mary Curtin, was already outside the door to the Merton Arts Space, which shares a building with the Wimbledon Library, and the door was firmly shut.
A confused moment or two later (there is more than one entrance to the building), once it was determined we could come in after all, and the production team hadn’t called the whole thing off at the last minute, the Mayor turned to me and said, “No early night for me then!” The Mayor was a nurse when she came to England from County Tipperary in Ireland. And that’s all I got to find out about her, because she was ushered into the hall and given the mayoral treatment, making use of the conveniences, being introduced to the producers, and so on and so forth.
Jenny Perry and Camilla Yates were tasked with a monologue each, the first telling the story of Sandra, the second providing a different perspective on events from Sandra’s sister. As Safeword Theatre has no plans to put the play on again – it appears to have run its course and served its purpose, or so I’m told – I may as well (proverbially) projective vomit a spoiler or two, or ten. Sandra is married to Paul, who was rather charming to begin with but gradually began to exert ever-increasing levels of control over Sandra’s life. But she was in love with him and would and did quite literally a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g that was asked of her, including resigning from a job she liked earning a living from (as far as one can reasonably ‘like’ employment – I’m sure you understand). Paul gets angrier and angrier until his fury manifests itself in the form of an assault. The neighbours overhear Sandra’s pleas for him to stop and put a call in to the police.
He is taken away having been arrested, she is taken away in an ambulance to Accident and Emergency. She eventually succumbs to her injuries, surrounded by her family. The same night that Sandra passes, Paul is barred from a pub for being obnoxious, and having had so much to drink he can hardly walk in a straight line, his perception of his surroundings fails him, and he dies in a road traffic collision. The play’s original final act was to include a short(ish) monologue from a police officer, who would, amongst other things, go through the various options as to what help and assistance is available. This was cut completely, if only because an actor pulled out and the team did not wish to re-cast, but I thought it worked perfectly fine without what would effectively have amounted to a post-mortem lecture.
Thank goodness for good mothers, and thank goodness for Debbie Kurup’s mother, who arrived at The Crazy Coqs even later than I did (thank you, London Underground, for not running to your supposed timetables), such that I didn’t miss any of Kurup’s ‘Songs for Mother’s Day’ concert. Steve Holness was at the piano, and while I can’t think of anyone who didn’t do a splendid job sat at The Crazy Coqs’ piano, this was something quite incredible. But then, as Kurup pointed out, Holness (who is also Kurup’s fiancé) has worked with Adele, Paul Weller, Petula Clark and the late Amy Winehouse. It was a short and sweet – and eclectic – mix of showtunes and popular music, in a variety of musical styles, with some anecdotes thrown in. in other words, everything one would expect from a theatre star doing their own show. Kurup and Holness are running the London Marathon 2019, supporting Crohn’s and Colitis UK: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/steviekeys2019
Leicester Square was the quietest I had experienced it to be for some time, it being a Sunday night, so I had no problem getting myself a table in a restaurant even though I hadn’t pre-booked. As I pointed out on social media, an American tourist had correctly pronounced ‘Gloucester Road’ whilst in conversation with his companions, which I was impressed by. After dinner I popped back to The Crazy Coqs for an evening of showtunes composed by Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and written by Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960). It replaced a Jason Robert Brown concert which was moved to the infinitely larger Theatre Royal Haymarket: but TRH has taken quite enough of my money for the time being after I saw Only Fools and Horses The Musical recently, and in any event I find his songs seem to go on longer than a General Election campaign.
This, too, was a perfectly splendid concert, this time with Henry Brennan at the piano. Georgia Lennon, a soprano studying at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom, a performing arts college that doesn’t exactly have the largest of intakes each year but whose graduates do tend to go on to have stellar careers in entertainment, won a competition run by ‘Crazy Coqs Presents’, led by Mark Petty, and gave a note-perfect performance of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel. Petty is already running another competition for his next Crazy Coqs concert, one of the relatively few announcements on social media on the morning of 1st April that was absolutely bona fide.
I thought the selection of songs was excellent, including very familiar tunes from The Sound of Music and lesser known works such as Flower Drum Song. Tim Rogers had the unenviable job of singing the Soliloquy from Carousel, apparently an eight-minute number (I say ‘apparently’ as it didn’t feel ‘long’ and I didn’t time it). The other soloists were as sublime as one another: Jon Tarcy, who I have never seen in a musical but has a remarkable singing voice; Amara Okereke, the current Cosette in the West End production of Les Misérables; Christina Bennington, who has done a good number of shows in her career to date but, let’s face it, most (including me) associate her with playing the female lead in Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell The Musical; and Vicki Lee Taylor, who played Miss Honey in the 2017-18 West End cast of Matilda The Musical, and most recently played Jodie in the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch production of Kiss Me Quickstep.
What I didn’t know before is that The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization have released a series called ‘R&H Goes Pop!’, which allows interpretations of the R&H canon using more contemporary arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on chart music radio. A couple of these arrangements were included in this concert: they are fresh and different, allowing audiences to hear these songs in a new way – some videos can be seen on the Rodgers & Hammerstein YouTube page. I admit to being slightly exhausted by all of the above, but I don’t regret any of it in the end.
Regular readers are probably tired by now of me saying that it should be possible to walk into a show, and not know anything about it, and come out with at least a general understanding of the proceedings in that production. But that’s exactly what happened the first time I came up to South Yorkshire to see a show in Sheffield that was made in Sheffield, and what a West End success Everybody’s Talking About Jamie turned out to be. I don’t think Standing At The Sky’s Edge could necessarily replicate that kind of commercial success – for one thing, it’s more reflective than celebratory (though not entirely without hope), and if I’m brutally honest, it’s one of those shows that takes a while to get going.
It’s a play with songs, rather than a book musical, and while the songs emphasise certain aspects of this intergenerational storyline, it’s as if the plot freezes so the audience can enjoy some music. Richard Hawley’s tunes, though sometimes quite lyrically dense, can also be too repetitive – too often the last line of a song is sung over and over again. I understand the need for dramatic emphasis, but it’s overdone to the point where it starts to lose its intended impact. Will Stuart leads a seven-piece band through a mixed range of tunes, featuring anything from a soloist to the full adult cast of fourteen plus the Sheffield People’s Theatre, another fourteen voices. SPT as a whole is larger than this, encompassing all sorts of theatre functions, both on and off-stage.
The show is essentially about the inhabitants of Park Hill, a council housing estate very close to Sheffield railway station, and thus within reasonable distance of the Crucible Theatre itself. Park Hill predates the Crucible by a decade, the former being opened in 1961 by Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963), the then Leader of the Opposition. I wasn’t initially keen at all on this production during its first three scenes, set in 1960, 1989 and 2016, with characters introduced quite fleetingly. Oh joy! Another one of those shows made unnecessarily complicated by flitting between generations because it’s currently fashionable to disregard linear, chronological storytelling.
Visible on stage for this production as soon as members of the audience file in is a sign reading “I love you will u marry me”, recognisable to locals as a handwritten plea that was never painted over once it appeared at some point in 2001. A decade later, it became a neon sign on the estate. The actual story behind that unconventional proposal isn’t covered here: while the characters in the play are all fictional, their stories are both recognisable and convincing. So many plays are still entirely about the upper and middle classes, or otherwise there are working class characters that are, at best, like Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence: very pleasant but also rather dim. Not here: this reflects the working classes at their most raw and most honest.
Grace (Deborah Tracey) and her niece Joy (Faith Omole) are spoken down to, as if their command of English is deficient, the former by a Housing Officer (Louis Gaunt) who introduces them to their new home and its miscellaneous mod-cons, the latter by Jimmy (Adam Hugill), who fends off Joy from a couple of local bullies. Poppy (Alex Young) also moves into the area, having bought a place (or what she cals a “split-level duplex”) at Park Hill. I do hope the Sheffield locals don’t think all Londoners are like her, ordering from Ocado (something I have never, ever done) and being generally rather pretentious.
Nikki (Maimuna Memon) and Adam Hugill (Jimmy) were the stand-outs for me, putting in stunning performances in solo musical numbers (Nikki’s ‘Open Up Your Door’ being particularly memorable), but there wasn’t anyone in this cast that I didn’t enjoy hearing from. A lot of topics come up: Harry (Robert Lonsdale) starts off as a young man with ambition but is later hit hard by the Thatcher reforms. The Iron Lady is loved in some quarters down south but, watching this show, it’s easy to understand why parts of the north are so staunchly anti-Conservative to this day. (No, the show doesn’t indulge in Tory-bashing.) Joy has initial trouble getting her head around Yorkshire dialect, whilst displaying a stroppy attitude that is nonetheless commensurate with being a teenager. There’s more than one same-sex relationship going on. The estate itself falls into a state of general disrepair.
The stage, too, is sometimes ridiculously busy. Being a flexible theatre space, the Crucible for this production has several entry/exit points for the cast, and some of the choreography (Lynne Page) has involves walking onto the stage from a given point and exiting from another. In the most dramatic scene, in the closing moments, the reasoning behind having so much activity couldn’t be clearer, but in other places, it’s too distracting and serves no narrative purpose. Like Jamie, Sky’s Edge has some punchlines in it that are best understood by Sheffield audiences (Jamie New’s “Homework is so boring, I’d rather be watching the snooker” brought the house down at the Crucible, home of the Snooker World Championship, but never raises even a titter on Shaftesbury Avenue). It’s inept in places, but goodness me, it’s so very genuine and sincere. A beautiful, haunting and heartfelt production.
At Crucible Theatre Sheffield, until 6 April 2019.
to I’ve resisted saying anything until now about Vision of You, the exploration and exposition of the backstories of the characters of Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) from Bat Out of Hell The Musical. There are three reasons. The first is that I thought I had said all I wished to say about BOOH – as it is known to its fans – already. The second is that there are invariably others who are able to write with so much more enthusiasm and unrestrained delight with regards to discovering more about these characters. Third, audiences were asked to “keep the secrets […] for those who haven’t yet seen the show”.
It is worth, on balance and with hindsight, saying something after all. The premise is that the concerts, held in London and Manchester previously as one-act performances, provide audiences with details about how Falco and Sloane came to be where they were as characters during the timespan of BOOH. The Peterborough concert was held at the Key Theatre, a venue operated by Vivacity, a not-for-profit company that manages many other facilities as well, including swimming pools, gyms, art galleries, libraries and the Peterborough Museum, for and on behalf of Peterborough City Council.
Why Peterborough? It’s where Rob Fowler first performed, as part of the Key Youth Theatre (KYT), now operated by Kindred Drama. Their alumni also include Matt Nalton, who was part of the West End cast of Jersey Boys, and Robert Gilbert, who has been in a number of productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Seven minutes is probably not that long for what Sexton and Fowler referred to as die-hard fans, many of whom have listened to Meat Loaf renderings of Jim Steinman’s songs that go on for even longer, but it’s a big ask of KYT’s current members to take on the opening musical number from BOOH, ‘All Revved Up With No Place To Go’ with a section from ‘Everything Louder Than Everything Else’ in the middle of it. Just as well that they smashed it.
At the interval, what I initially recognised as the familiar sound of hoovering, because the sheer amount of confetti that used to fall at the end of the first half of BOOH meant stagehands would use vacuums to help get rid of it, was actually the noise of automatic hand dryers in the conveniences. The use of a band (as opposed to just Steve Corley at the piano as per the earlier concerts) allowed for a greater variation of numbers, including renderings from BOOH numbers ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and ‘For Crying Out Loud’ from Strat (Simon Gordon) and Raven (Georgia Carling). The song most closely associated with Falco and Sloane (apart from ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’, which wasn’t reprised, fortunately or unfortunately), ‘What Part of My Body Hurts The Most?’ was as emotionally charged and impassioned as ever.
At the risk of he who doth protest too much, there were the usual hiccups that tend to go with one-off events – the odd line wasn’t quite picked up by the microphones, and a videotape was played prematurely. Early in the second half, with much of the narrative of the ‘original’ one-act Vision of You complete, the performance seemed to stop being a backstory that needed to be told and became more celebratory than revelatory. ‘The Show Must Go On’ from We Will Rock You and a tweaked rendering of ‘What You Own’ from Rent were amongst the highlights (for me, anyway), as was the infinitely mellower ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’. All things considered, a great night (especially considering the box office prices patrons paid) and a memorable live experience. Perhaps there might be someone from the current Key Youth Theatre company that might end up on a West End stage too one of these days.
As I seem incapable of having a weekend off to sort out ‘life admin’, catch up with laundry or even just relax (because, y’know, YOLO), I ended up gracing four events with my presence, a play, a musical, a talk and a concert.
Circa, the debut play by Tom Ratcliffe, was something I first saw in June 2016, and even then, the size of the cast had been cut from eleven to seven following its premiere in January of that year in Amsterdam. This time around there have been further cutbacks with just five actors sharing eleven characters between them. Rather like Come From Away, a quick change of clothes was sometimes all that was required to differentiate between, for instance, Thomas Flynn’s ‘The Young Man’ in different settings and scenarios, a device arguably overused in this production. The set (Luke W Robson) is certainly an improvement, and overall the show feels like it has lost some running time. But in doing so it has gained a pacier and more engaging narrative.
The Drowsy Chaperone is not a show that does the rounds very often in Britain, at least partly because of its lousy title, itself a part of its concept as a show that (frankly) takes the piss out of the musical comedies that came out of the United States during the interwar period. The Man In Chair (Tim Redman) narrates as he sits in his front room, and the rest of the stage acts out the record called ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ that he plays. In the spirit of suspending one’s disbelief, one imagines being a guest of The Man at his house. The music is quite gorgeous, and it was nice to hear and see ‘Show Off’ in context (“I don’t wanna show off no more / I don’t wanna sing tunes no more / I don’t wanna ride moons no more / I don’t wanna show off”). This production was put on by the Panda Players Amateur Theatre and Concert Group, based in Chesham, a Buckinghamshire market town.
If, like me, hanging around for a drink or two and a catch-up is on the agenda, the last train on a Saturday night leaves Chesham Tube – yes Tube – station at 2357 hours, requiring a change at Moor Park for another Metropolitan line train to Wembley Park, and then the Jubilee line Night Tube service into central London, and onwards to wherever one needs to go. In the end, I took advantage of a kind offer of a lift to West Ruislip, and zipped along the Central line, just managed to meet the penultimate Wimbledon-bound District line train of the night at Notting Hill Gate, and then only had a one-minute wait for the bus at the other end: result! The show was pleasantly enjoyable, by the way, though I doubt it would fare much better if it were revived in the West End now – it notched up less than 100 performances in 2007. All those interruptions by the show’s narrator, whilst pleasantly amusing, are also more than a tad jarring, and the show just doesn’t flow very well, because it’s never allowed to. Good cast though.
I hadn’t heard of Jewish Book Week before, though there is no reason why there wouldn’t be such a thing. There was food served in Kings Place for delegates. Looking at what was on offer, it would surprise me if all of it was strictly kosher. Anyway, this talk by Adina Hoffman was about her book Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, published by Yale University Press. Naturally, anyone with an interest in Jewish history (whether actually Jewish or not) would have benefitted most from the details of the talk, but overall it was quite a fascinating insight into this screenwriter and journalist. He was also a film director, but Hoffman didn’t think he was nearly as insightful doing that job as he was as a screenwriter. Controversially, he had written in favour of guerrilla tactics against the British, which got his films boycotted in the UK for four years. “Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.” Many of his ideas and techniques are apparently still deployed in Hollywood to this day, and I shall look forward to reading the book in due course.
Sunday evening saw my first trip to West End Live Lounge – the ‘Lounge’ being very important, else the musical theatre fans will think one is talking about a free jamboree in June in Trafalgar Square. Afterwards I was told by a regular to the ‘Lounge’ (there is more than one a year) that the show had run half an hour longer than it should have done (and, indeed, a woman in the row behind insisted on pushing past everyone as soon as the house lights came up on the grounds that she had minutes to spare to catch her train from Victoria Station). The host, Samuel J Holmes, had gone into almost excruciating detail about his recent house move to Southend. I suppose it is quite forgivable – after all, the process of moving to a new house does become all-encompassing whenever it happens. Still, bringing in samples of one’s record collection to show the audience? Really?
I was also somewhat (by which I mean ‘completely’) out of my depth – while quite a few people had said it would be a good experience, what none of them had cared to warn me about was that one their only rules is ‘no musical theatre’. I knew very few of the songs, and there was little, if any, introduction to them, so as a whole the evening went over my head. Oddly enough, they had opened with ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, which, last time I checked, is from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Strictly speaking, there are quite a few songs (beside showtune standards) that are technically banned from the Lounge, including songs from Take That (The Band), The Beatles (Let It Be), Cher (The Cher Show), Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell The Musical), The Kinks (Sunny Afternoon), any of the dozens of songs that feature in Motown the Musical, and any of the songs in the Max Martin chart music back catalogue that are to feature in & Juliet.
Both Christina Bennington and Emma Hatton (the former perhaps most famous for Bat Out of Hell the Musical on both sides of the Atlantic, the latter having played Eva Peron in Evita at the Phoenix in 2017 and Elphaba in Wicked before that) seemed visibly put off by the sheer number of mobile phones out with audience members filming performances. Mr Holmes, too, called someone out who took to their phone during one of his spiels. Some people just haven’t got a clue.
Anyway, one or two people wanted the audience to sing along to their songs, but hardly anyone did, which was somewhat reassuring for me, and I can only assume I wasn’t alone in not having a sodding clue what the lyrics were. Sam Coates led a ten-piece band and – fair play to the Lounge – not a single backing track was used throughout the three-hour event. A huge ‘well done’ to the show’s producer, Shaun McCourt. The event also raised money for the Samaritans, who receive a call from someone in need of support once every six seconds. West End Live Lounge quite literally changes lives. I honestly can’t see myself going back in future, but there’s a lot to enjoy for fans of chart music, performed as it is here to a very high standard.
It was a weekend away from the reviewing circuit but as per usual I couldn’t resist saying something about what I enjoyed – ‘enjoyed’ being the operative word. I dropped into MT Fest UK, a musical festival theatre of new writing, to sample a couple of their ‘taster’ sessions. These were 45-minute extracts of musicals, presented in front of paying audiences to solicit feedback with a view to developing them further. The Astonishing Return of… The Protagonists had a number of superheroes (or, rather, people with extraordinary powers) from a previous generation who – because history repeats itself and all that – feel it necessary to regroup and make a comeback. But it’s been a while since they last exercised their powers, and in the meantime, they’ve started families and gotten on with their lives.
This, of course, shouldn’t actually be too much of a problem (if a problem at all) given their superpowers. But the narrative insists they are older now than they were then, and it appeared to me that most of the battle against making a comeback was of a mental and psychological nature, rather than any doubts about their older selves being less agile than they were decades before. They are facing not only the resurgence of an old enemy but things like the menopause and children who are growing up and going off to university. I found it very amusing, though, with a good variety of musical styles included in its repertoire. It’s the old adage of good versus evil, triumph over adversity, and I wonder if it really has anything new to offer that hasn’t been seen in something like the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the off-Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger, or the lesser known Edinburgh Fringe superhero show Vulvarine.
Killer Queen does not, alas, ride on the back of the success of the motion picture Bohemian Rhapsody, or indeed of the rock band Queen itself. Marie Antoinette is not an idiot – when some fraudsters attempt to sell her some fake jewellery, she’s having none of it and dismisses them from her court. The musical is, apparently, at an earlier stage of development than any of the seven other musicals being showcased in the festival. The use of rapping and talk of a ‘revolution’ means that the extract came across as trying to sound like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, but not quite reaching the lyrical sophistication of that show. But the musical theatre director and choreographer extraordinaire Drew McOnie was nodding his head in time to the music and seemed to think it has potential, so we’ll see what becomes of it.
A friend of mine is a regular visitor to the historic city of Oxford, and while I was sat in London sampling new musicals, he had already made his way over to drink in what Oxford has to offer. Making the (sort of) short walk from The Other Palace Theatre to the Oxford Tube pickup point outside Victoria Coach Station, the coach came quickly enough, but heavy traffic at Hangar Lane and then again on the M40 meant we pulled into Oxford rather later than intended, with just enough time for a quick meal before meeting up at the New Theatre to catch the touring production of Kinky Boots. There were only minor modifications from the West End production but otherwise the show is just as tremendous as it was on the Strand. The stand-out for me was Kayi Ushe as Lola/Simon, and Joel Harper-Jackson does well as Charlie Price.
I think the first time I knew anything about Laura Michelle Kelly was when the London megachurch Holy Trinity Brompton published a testimonial in her own words as part of their promotional material for the Christian educational programme ‘The Alpha Course’. Kelly was brought up in a family that practised religion, and it appears she never lost her faith, telling the New York Theatre Guide in 2010 that if she were stranded on a desert island, the three items she would take with her would be, “My Bible, iPhone and my guitar”. She had, of course, won the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical, having played the title role in a West End stage production of Mary Poppins.
At the Cadogan Hall, she was utterly delightful. She’d garnered a fair few fans over the years, who had come from various places, including the Isle of Wight, where she grew up, to see her (though the hall wasn’t quite sold out, probably because she stayed in the United States for some years after playing Mary Poppins on Broadway that she wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in London). A good variety of songs, stretching from ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along to The Bodyguard’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, were beautifully performed, and there were some anecdotes to enjoy, stretching from her upbringing right through to the present day. The most recent significant event is that her second marriage took place only last month.
Another highlight of this (extended) weekend was a Monday night trip to the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, to catch Sir Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday tour of the country – by the time he finishes his travels later in the year he will have gone as far south as the Jersey Opera House and as far north as the Orkney Theatre. He had an offer to perform at the Queen’s decades ago but then had an offer to perform at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for more money, so went there instead. “At last,” he mused at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour spectacular display of extracts, anecdotes and a remarkable memory, “I have played Hornchurch.”
The first half was partly about Tolkien and various people who he encountered whilst filming The Lord of the Rings, most of whom apparently had a habit of reading the book once a year. Some personal stories involved name-dropping a whole load of actors and directors who he had the privilege (the word ‘privilege’ sometimes in inverted commas) of working with. The second half was almost entirely given over to the Shakespeare canon. I do not have sufficient knowledge to say with any authority whether he did write, without collaborators, every scene in each of the 37 plays considered to be his: suffice to say, there has been considerable speculation and suspicion over the centuries, and further details are available elsewhere online for anyone interested.
I also cannot claim to have anywhere near the depth of knowledge of the Bard’s plays that McKellen has, and even he admitted to not being able to say much about one or two of them. It was far from the sort of fare the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch usually puts on (their current production is called Kiss Me Quickstep, for instance) but I found it hugely entertaining. I believe his tour is more or less sold out but if you are able to go, it’s worth the financial and geographical inconvenience.
Rough Crossing turned out to be a rough crossing for me, though this was more down to my personal circumstances than faults in the production. Having made the decision to trek down to Chichester Festival Theatre (never an easy decision, what with Southern Railway and South Western Railway being what they are these days), I’d come down with a heavy cold and cough just a couple of days beforehand. But one doesn’t miss the theatre just for the sake of a runny nose and sore throat. The advice is to keep one’s throat’s mucous membranes hydrated so they can heal, so while swallowing is uncomfortable, drinking plenty of fluids is supposed to make a sore throat feel better. So, having drunk gallons of – well, miscellaneous beverages – in a bid to get rid of this blasted illness sooner rather than later, I woke up on Saturday morning. I managed to get up, and thought to myself, “Well, I’m up now. I may as well leave the house.”
I was, of course, drugged up, and while the trains were delayed (yet again), what really didn’t help was the lack of available hackney carriages at Chichester Station. First world problem, naturally, but I wasn’t thinking that when I wheezed and huffed and puffed my way through the city centre. It’s true what they say, though, about the only city in West Sussex: the local population is considerably older than it is in the capital, reflected in the patronage of the theatre, and even this unwell, short, fat bloke (me) was shuffling past quite a few people to get to where I was going.
Rightly or wrongly I agreed to ‘same again’ at the interval (a large glass of chardonnay). As I’d expended more energy than I had expected trekking across central Chichester (on reflection I was more unwell than I had realised) and rather enjoyed my wine, it was very difficult to resist entering the Land of Nod, not helped by the play being quite subtle. At the interval, people were complaining about not being able to hear the cast properly (they were unamplified) which probably is more to do with the configuration of the Festival Theatre stage (Elizabethan thrust rather than proscenium arch), which makes it quite possible for an actor to be facing away from one section of the audience or another at any given point.
There were some musical numbers in the show, though it is very much a play and not a musical. Adam (Rob Ostlere) has some sort of nervous disposition which means he ends up answering the previous question, very much in the style of the 1980 Two Ronnies ‘Mastermind’ sketch. The whole thing goes at quite a pace, sending the Festival Theatre audience back out into the fairly chilly Chichester air barely two hours after it had started, and there were moments when not enough opportunity was given for the audience to appreciate a punchline through laughter and/or applause.
What transpires, as far as I could deduce, is that there is a playwriting partnership between Sandor Turai (John Partridge) and Alex Gal (Matthew Bottle). Adam is their composer, and the trio are still working on their latest musical, called ‘The Cruise of the Dodo’. They and their actors are on board a ship called the SS Italian Castle, bound for New York. The actors are Natasha Navratilova (Issy van Randwyck) and Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton). All are served by a new employee of the ship, Dvornichek (Charlie Stemp, who perhaps unsurprisingly gets a chance to demonstrate his considerable dancing skills). Ivor and Natasha, already being in a professional relationship, develop a personal one, much to the chagrin of Adam, Natasha’s significant other. From this arises some entertaining but absurdist proceedings, which eventually lead to a happy ending of sorts.
Goodness me, it’s dull and dated. It’s a good cast, for sure, but a joke about a speech impediment in this day and age is not really much of a joke at all – for me, it was merely unfunny rather than offensive, and a gag in which Dvornichek repeatedly fails to get a drink to its intended recipient is overdone to the point of flogging a proverbial dead horse. It wasn’t even ‘Springtime for Hitler’ funny (that is, so bad it ironically has comedy value). It was just bland with a capital B. Good set (Colin Richmond) though.
I must admit I knew not much about David Tomlinson (1917-2000) before seeing The Life I Lead, itself something I only saw as it happened to be in Chichester in the same week that I went down to West Sussex to catch a touring production of the Tom Stoppard play Rough Crossing. As Tomlinson (Miles Jupp) observes, “It’s Mr Banks that people want”, as though he were forced to slip back into that character in the 1964 motion picture Mary Poppins to appease the public. One need not, I was delighted to discover, know anything more about Tomlinson to follow what goes on.
His relationship, if it could be called that, with his father was the one took up more time than any other single issue. An aloof figure, even by the standards of the day, it turns out he was quite literally living a double life. There was an entire second family, though the Tomlinsons soldiered on as though nothing had happened. Miles Jupp brilliantly plays the English gent, bursting into song and telling various anecdotes, and treating his own children with far more compassion than what he remembers from his own childhood. Just as well: one of them, Willie, was eventually diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, at a time when just a few years before, that child would have been taken from his parents and unceremoniously bunged in bedlam. Instead there was compassion, and the work of an extraordinarily patient woman who had devoted her life to helping people like Willie.
Tomlinson’s father was promptly widowed when his first wife was taken by her own hand; his second marriage, to Audrey, lasted until his own death as the result of a sudden stroke from which he never recovered. As tends to be the case with single-performer productions, Jupp voices various people, including the likes of Walt Disney and members of his family. For those who recall Tomlinson in the various films he was in, he was one of those character actors that portrayed more or less the same sort of person over and over again – posh, a tad ridiculous but somewhat modest and unfailingly polite. So was the Tomlinson portrayed here, but there was so much more to him than a man who has been in a lot of films.
A spellbinding performance from Jupp, who is perfectly cast for a show of this nature, full of personal reflections and a narrative full of details about both the personal and professional aspects of a remarkable man.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.