Press reviews stop over the festive period (well, they do for me anyway, before someone turns around, as they will inevitably do, and say they were reviewing non-stop right the way through Christmas and New Year, including three pantos on Christmas Day, etc) so it’s an opportunity to either step away from gracing the theatre with one’s presence altogether for a while, or otherwise see things for fun. I plumped for the latter option, and as I hadn’t been to Dublin before, a ‘New Year’s Eve Gala’ called ‘An Evening with Killian Donnelly’ seemed incredibly appealing, even if I was having to pay seasonal rates for flights and accommodation (my seat for the concert itself was €50, and I could have gone for cheaper price bands if I wanted to).
Before any of that, though, I took in the London stop on a brief tour of a concert called ‘The Greatest Show Tunes’, a gig put on by Raymond Gubbay Ltd. The Barbican Centre was the third calling point out of four – the others being Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, the Birmingham Symphony Hall and Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. Birmingham Voices were the choir for the event, and the London Concert Orchestra (founded by Gubbay in 1972 to service his large number of concerts in the capital) glided through an eclectic range of showtunes, largely from the stage but (as the concert’s title suggests) forays into movie musicals too.
I only saw Dreamgirls once – I never revisited it on account of the viciousness of the audience on the night I went (I do not wish to revisit the details, suffice to say it was a most unpleasant experience), so hearing Marisha Wallace belt out ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ live was sublime. (Amber Riley sang it when I went to the Savoy Theatre.) It was one of those hit-after-hit-after-hit concerts: the other soloists being Ricardo Afonso, Sophie Evans and Ben Forster, all perfectly decent, and all more than competent at what they do. Greater fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than I were able to do the ‘Time Warp’ – I tend to just about get the hang of it by the end of the number, and then I’ll have forgotten it by the time it crops up at another musical theatre concert.
I took the advice of some Irish acquaintances and avoided booking a Ryanair flight, and thus avoided Luton airport – it is better, they say, to fly Aer Lingus from Heathrow or Gatwick. I didn’t follow their advice to the letter, using London City Airport both ways. Aer Lingus was the national airline of Ireland before privatisation was completed in 2015. It’s now part of IAG – or International Airlines Group – which also owns British Airways and Iberia (amongst other subsidiaries). Both ways the flights arrived slightly ahead of schedule, which surprised me somewhat on the outbound leg as heavy fog must have affected operations earlier in the day with what I had expected to be knock-on effects.
Because of the Christmas/New Year season, a lot of hotels in Dublin had hiked their prices right up, such that one of the cheaper options was a Hilton. Not only had I never been to Ireland before, I’d also never stayed anywhere posh enough to even have room service, so naturally I took the opportunity to experience it. Still, I’m not Hilton’s usual kind of client. Concierge asked me on checkout whether I had a car waiting to take me to the airport: I simply said ‘No’ without bothering to say my intention was to walk for ten minutes or so to the bus stop for the Dublin Bus Airlink Express (there are even cheaper options for those who want to use the regular commuter buses to/from the airport).
As I had some time before the New Year’s Eve concert (almost one and a half days), I took the opportunity (when I wasn’t wrestling with the non-consistent WiFi and trying to clear my inbox) to get out rather than be cooped up in the hotel, lovely as it was. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was opened in 2010, apparently the only Irish theatre with a stage that can cope with large scale touring productions. With a capacity of 2,111 it is larger than most West End theatres – and every Broadway theatre. Principal actors in touring productions have tended to take to social media shortly after arriving at the venue for the first time to remark on how exquisite the dressing rooms are. The venue is largely (if not entirely) glass fronted. I was slightly stunned to discover that the theatre – given Ireland’s reputation for liking an alcohol beverage (or several) does not permit alcohol of any kind to be taken into the auditorium. Is this Ireland? The country that has a reputation for, amongst other things, liking a drink or several? Of course, Ireland’s relationship with alcohol is deep and complex, and requires an in-depth study to fully appreciate.
Anyway, a touring production of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ Mamma Mia! musical was in town. I’d seen it at the start of the tour, at the Edinburgh Playhouse (I’ve mentioned elsewhere the reasons for paying attention to this particular touring show so I won’t bore you with the details again), and that audience was overwhelmingly loud and enthusiastic throughout. The Dublin audience at the night I attended was probably closer to a London crowd, and I don’t mean to say there was excessive rustling and idle chatter going on during the show. It was more to do with there being a wide cross-section of people (Edinburgh Playhouse on a Saturday night seemed to be filled with partygoers) including families and patrons of all ages. The Dublin audience, or at least those sat around me, were pleased to hear Sharon Sexton’s Donna Sheridan speak in an Irish accent (Sexton is from Co Kildare) and the show has settled into its stride now, with everything that little bit slicker and smoother after they opened ‘cold’ in Edinburgh back in September.
I hadn’t left any time for the open top bus tour of Dublin, but on the recommendations of others I had breakfast at Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street. It was a good experience, but I didn’t think it to be a particularly exceptional breakfast relative to anywhere else that does decent breakfasts. It’s an iconic place though, a landmark building with historic features. Later that morning I strolled over to the Guinness Storehouse – I’m not sure whether it’s always as busy as it was on New Year’s Eve, but there were queues for everything, a homage, if you will, to the Guinness strapline ‘Good things come to those who wait’. An informative experience that gives visitors the full run down of how Guinness is made – the whole process from beginning to end – transported, marketed and advertised.
I went on the 260th anniversary of Arthur Guinness (1725-1803) signing a 9,000-year lease on the St James’ Gate brewery, still in existence. The staff at the Storehouse kept making a big thing of there being 8,740 years of brewing still to go. What they do not tell you is that Guinness bought out the lease some time ago, so it’s not as if they’ve got to shift once 31 December 10759 rolls around. The Gravity Bar, on the top floor, allows good views over Dublin – but, like everywhere else, it was packed to the hilt. Still, I’m glad I went.
If things seemed more expensive in Dublin than they do in London, it’s partly because everything is priced in euros. But some things happen to be cheaper, including cinema tickets. I settled down for an afternoon screening of Little Women, not being a fan of Star Wars and wanting to avoid the movie version of Cats (Marisha Wallace said it best at the Barbican, when she encouraged the audience to see a stage production of it: “Theatre actors don’t need CGI!”). This is a pleasant adaptation, even if Little Women had been done before. Things are not made too complicated despite a storyline not entirely in chronological order (the time-hopping did start to irritate me however). Those already familiar with the story will already know whether they’re going to like the film or not. Despite my own familiarity with it, I wasn’t bored by it at all, and there are some nice touches to this adaptation that make it unique yet distinctly recognisable as the story appreciated by many since its publication in 1868-69.
I somehow misplaced my wallet in the foyer of the National Concert Hall – and spent the first half of ‘An Evening with Killian Donnelly’ semi-lamenting the loss of it while doing my best to enjoy proceedings. So it was most relieving to hear my name being called out over the public address system asking me to go to the reception desk just as we were all filing out for the interval, and the free bubbly put on by the venue (it was their New Year’s Eve Gala, after all) was even more appreciated than it would have been otherwise. The concert itself was a special and memorable experience, and we were introduced to Louise Bowden, Killian’s girlfriend. The couple are now expecting (she is six months pregnant). Two of the songs were, respectively, what Killian sings to himself when he doesn’t pass an audition, and what he sings to himself when he does. An Irish folk song, ‘Carrickfergus’, is the song of lament: “For I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober / A handsome rover from town to town / Ah, but I’m sick now, my days are numbered / Come all ye young men and lay me down”. ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ is what he goes for when he’s got the job.
The other guest soloists were Simon Delaney, a famed Irish actor, director and television presenter, and Barry Keenan, an Irish actor living in London. I was impressed with Keenan’s rendering of ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. While some New Year’s Eve concerts have a relaxed rule about timing – there’s midnight out there, and there’s midnight in here, and the two are not necessarily going to be the same, but we’ll have a good time anyhow, and we’ll get to ‘midnight’ when we get there – Killian chose to keep a close eye on the time, which meant rattling through the second half with some gusto. I’ve never sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with an orchestra going full tilt so that was a special moment, and we were still messing around bouncing balloons back into the air in the stalls even while Killian was saying something poignant and then segueing into ‘My Way’. ‘Hey Jude’ closed out the concert. I’d been wanting a Killian Donnelly concert for years, and I know I’m not the only one amongst fans and followers of musical theatre. Yes, the whole spending Dublin for New Year’s thing has hit the bank balance hard, but I have no regrets.
Back in Blighty (it doesn’t take long to fly back over the Irish Sea and down to London City Airport) I took advantage of the break in press reviews to catch the return of Girl From The North Country to the West End stage. It has a rather different feel to it compared to when I saw it the first time around as most of the cast (if not all of them) come from a musical theatre background. It remains a play with songs rather than a musical, and it isn’t (being a show featuring a load of songs from the Bob Dylan catalogue) the happiest of narratives. Katie Brayben’s Elizabeth Laine yelled rather than sang her way through a couple of songs for some reason, but otherwise it’s a fine production.
It was also good to return to Come From Away, which I’d been meaning to do for some time but hadn’t succeeded in making a return visit work for one reason or another. It’s one of those shows that I could return to yet again (and hopefully will) – the story is rather familiar to me having listened to the cast recording on various occasions but seeing it on stage, it remains a heartfelt, amusing and yet poignant musical all in one, miscellaneous strands of humanity stranded in an unfamiliar place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It’s really the 9/12 musical, and in some ways it’s a story still being told.
For someone who sees so much theatre, it is a little surprising that the past year’s most memorable events were away from the stage. Towards the end of August, the euphoria of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was quickly dulled by news that my father was unwell. I was sent photographs, one of which showed him lying down, and the other showed him sitting up in bed. At face value, this didn’t seem to be something to be overly concerned about. Still, other members of the family were hastily making plans to make a visit. Before they arrived, my father had passed away, and what was supposed to be a reunion of sorts became a sombre preparation for a funeral. For the record, the death certificate puts it down to ‘community acquired pneumonia’.
My next-door neighbour’s landlord expressed a concern towards the end of summer that some overgrown ivy was threatening to obstruct the guttering to his property, so I paid to have that removed. But as I seem to like ‘being extra’ (as certain millennials would say) I ended up having the rear garden ripped up as well with an artificial turf put down and new fencing. The fence pleased the tenant, as one of her dogs kept escaping through the holes in the flimsy old fence. It was a big financial burden, though, which eventually resulted in additional borrowing to my existing mortgage. Oops.
If that wasn’t enough bad news, just before Christmas my house was broken into, in a similar fashion to what had happened more than a decade ago, though this time someone had managed to gain entry, as all the kitchen cupboards were open when I got back late in the evening. The back window had been smashed in, and the Metropolitan Police had already done their forensics and arranged for the window to be boarded up. Apparently, an invoice is on its way to me. Strangely, nothing of value was taken (as far as I am aware), though laughably I am missing the stainless-steel tube for my Henry vacuum cleaner (did the buggers not want the vacuum itself?), and I’m hardly going to claim that on the insurance. Anyway, there’s an alarm system in the house now, so as I write this from Dublin, Ireland, if the thieves return, I’m going to know about it through a ’24-hour guard response’ service within minutes.
Outside domestic life, Wagatha Christie comes to mind as the ‘event’ that made my jaw drop the most. Noticing that stories about her were being leaked to the national press, Colleen Rooney, wife of footballer Wayne, blocked everyone from her private Instagram account except for one person, and then set about creating fake stories about herself. Still the leaks went on, such that the stories that could only be seen by one other account apart from her own continued to make their way into the gossip columns. Rooney’s revelation: “It’s….. Rebekah Vardy’s account.”
Elsewhere, the spire of the Notre Dame cathedral toppled in a devastating fire. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, was ‘impeached’, though it appears that isn’t enough in itself to remove him from office. Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party won a landslide majority in a General Election. Labour voters – by no means all of them – got nasty, especially those in the London bubble, calling every Conservative voter effing cees, the spawn of Satan, the scum of the earth, Nazi rapists, and so on. They would do better to try to understand why voters voted the way they did.
R Kelly. Prince Andrew. Jeffrey Epstein. The Amazon rainforest fires. Extinction (non) Rebellion. The mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. A man on the rampage near London Bridge. Theresa May crying only for herself as she announced her resignation from 10 Downing Street. Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris attacked on a London bus until they were bleeding. People in Hong Kong protesting in support of democracy – whilst people in London protested against it!
Other deaths. Robert Mugabe. Jacques Chirac. Michel Legrand, the composer. Carol Channing, the Broadway star. Jerry Herman, composer. Andre Previn, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra 1968-1979. Gordon Banks, goalkeeper. Albert Finney, film star. Jeremy Hardy, comedian. Mike Thalassitis, participant in the 2017 series of Love Island. Luke Perry, actor. Keith Flint, who fronted The Prodigy. Doris Day. Freddie Starr, comedian. Harold Prince, Broadway producer and director. John McCririck, racing broadcaster. Joe Longthorne, entertainer and impressionist. Peter Sissons, journalist and newsreader. Gary Rhodes, chef. Jonathan Miller, theatre director. Clive James, broadcaster. Marie Fredriksson, lead singer for Roxette.
There were gems at the Edinburgh Fringe, particularly comedy sets by Ivo Graham, Jake Lambert and Rhys Nicholson, and a hilarious production called I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical. Outside the big four operators at the Fringe this year (Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, Assembly and Pleasance), the team at theSpaceUK were very accommodating to me, even when I marched into the press office and requested a review ticket for something or other on the day. Their programme is eclectic, and there were some hidden gems showcasing some up and coming talent. There were quite a few reviews that went up on LondonTheatre1 – I think fifty-one in total. Unless a production has a good publicity agent and/or a seriously on-the-ball social media person tweeting like hell, it’s unlikely I would even be aware of a production at the Fringe that wanted a review.
But that said, there were two actors who I came across completely outside the PR machinery, thanks to enthusiastic people whose tweets I just happened to come across. Catherine Francoise highly recommended two shows by David William Bryan, ‘In Loyal Company’ and ‘Fragility of Man’. I submitted a five-star review for the first, and didn’t write anything at all for the second, because he didn’t want any reviews for it. Barney Wilkinson, one of the many powerhouse voices in the London production of Bat Out of Hell The Musical, recommended Emma Torrens, who played the lead role in Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights. The Fringe agreed with him – she won an award for ‘Best Voice’ on the night that I finally got around to seeing that show. There was a bar competition in George Square that is worth mentioning: nothing to do with necking down a pint of beer faster than anyone else, for the price of £10, anyone who was up for it was given the chance to hang from a bar. If they can do so for two minutes, there was a prize of £100 for doing so. Sixty-one seconds was the most anyone lasted the one time I watched proceedings between shows.
The year began with me seeing four performances of Bat Out of Hell – I had become such a repeat visitor that amongst certain reviewer circles I became known for a while as ‘that Bat Out of Hell fan’. But it was good to see two different productions, albeit outside London, of my favourite musical ever, West Side Story, one in Manchester (at the Royal Exchange) and one in Leicester (at the Curve Theatre). Both theatres had considerably larger orchestras than they usually would – mostly because one can’t really do West Side Story without a big group of musicians, with interesting configurations in both cases to fit them all in. The choreography in both productions was well thought through, making the best use of the available space while staying true to the vibrancy and lasting relevance of the show.
I rarely attend last night performances now (my financial circumstances aren’t what they used to be and so there’s been considerable belt-tightening since a few years ago) but it was good to make the last show of Kinky Boots in the West End. I was pleased to see a number of productions at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, Essex, including a touring one-man show by Sir Ian McKellen. I saw sixteen productions at this year’s Vault Festival: as per, it was a case of the good, the bad and the ugly.
I thoroughly enjoyed six concerts in a series called Vision of You (there were more besides, including one in Manchester), exploring the backstories behind the characters of Falco and Sloane in Bat Out of Hell The Musical – three were at the Crazy Coqs, one at the Key Theatre in Peterborough, another at Southwark Playhouse and the final extravaganza at The Other Palace. Led by Sharon Sexton and Rob Fowler (at the time of writing now in a touring production of Mamma Mia!), each was a progressive improvement on the previous performances – and the last included an introduction to The Songsmiths, a new vocal harmony trio of ‘BOOH’ alumni who have gone on to release a studio recording.
Thanks to the handiwork of Club 11 London and Take Two Theatricals, there was an increase in the number of concerts I attended at Cadogan Hall. It was a privilege to have brief face-to-face post-show chats with Laura Benanti and Kelli O’Hara. I also saw Chita Rivera, Laura Michelle Kelly, Caissie Levy and Jeremy Jordan, while Christina Bennington, Luke Bayer, Debbie Kurup and Anne Steele did excellent shows over at the Crazy Coqs near Piccadilly Circus.
Outside the London bubble, Standing on the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible Theatre gave me a real insight into the city of Sheffield and its inhabitants. I loved seeing Barber Shop Chronicles in the same theatre later in the year, as well as the touring production of Kinky Boots, at the nearby Lyceum Theatre and – closer to home – at the Oxford Playhouse. Oklahoma! was the big summer musical at Chichester Festival Theatre: their last few musicals haven’t transferred to the West End, which is regrettable. I managed a visit to Edinburgh outside the Fringe season, for the opening week of the Mamma Mia! tour 2019/20, and experienced the sheer enthusiasm of a Saturday night Edinburgh Playhouse audience – they were, comparative to West End levels of applause, ecstatic and wild. Finally, a production of Singin’ In The Rain at The Mill at Sonning, in Berkshire (a ten minute taxi ride from Reading Station), was a unique experience, especially as it was my first time experiencing having a buffet dinner in the venue with the entire audience, with the show itself not starting until 8:15pm.
It was also a good year for new musicals (well, new to the West End anyway). Come From Away continues to be the one-act show that crams in more narrative than some other shows do in two. I wasn’t blown away by Waitress, but found Mary Poppins, & Juliet and Dear Evan Hansen to be quite extraordinary. A wise man once remarked to me when I was a child, “Time is always our enemy”, and so I regret not being able to accept every invitation to review that comes through. And as a recent tweet from Evan Cabnet, one of the artistic directors at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, put it: “the fact that any play anywhere makes it on stage and over the footlights is a goddamn miracle, so if you were part of a production this year, my sincerest congratulations”. So yeah. Well done to all.
And what about 2020? It will not have escaped observant theatre regulars that Bat Out of Hell The Musical is embarking on a UK tour (which will follow an Australian one), and as it’s stopping by the New Wimbledon Theatre, there will be a week in October in which I won’t be putting up any reviews at all, because I’ll be sat in a theatre that’s (just about) walking distance from my front door for six consecutive nights. I’ll be in Manchester with other Bat Out of Hell fans on the UK tour’s opening night, and will also see it in Birmingham, Oxford, Glasgow and Liverpool. Also in the diary is a trip to Magic Goes Wrong, the latest in a series of comedy plays from Mischief Theatre, and trips to the touring production of Mamma Mia! (because, y’know, a couple of ‘BOOH’ cast are in it) during its runs in Southampton (I’ve made a friend or two as a result of ‘BOOH’ who happen to live there), Glasgow (I somehow found myself (sort of) promising one of the principals in the show, Emma Mullen, that I would visit her home city) and Plymouth (can’t remember why for the life of me).
Lucie Jones will host her own concert, featuring the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, in February, and ‘BOOH’ alumnus Danielle Steers has her own concert the following month. Stephanie J Block, the Broadway actor, will perform at Cadogan Hall on Easter Day. The Park Theatre has Clybourne Park, a Bruce Norris play, in its repertoire from 25 March to 2 May. A production of the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels will play at the Garrick Theatre. West Side Story returns to the Royal Exchange Theatre, so I’m seeing that in April, followed by Magic at the Musicals at the Royal Albert Hall and Sunday in the Park with George at the Savoy Theatre, both in May. After another venture to the Edinburgh Fringe (it’s becoming prohibitively expensive, so this might be my final trip – or otherwise I may cut back down to one week or even a long weekend), a production of Hello, Dolly! comes to the Adelphi Theatre. And on it goes. I wish you a very Happy New Year.
1. West Side Story, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
“Gangs, fighting in the streets, tensions relating to race and immigration, crimes against the person committed using knives: it’s indicative of some elements of urban Britain today, making this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story all the more relevant.”
and West Side Story, Curve Theatre, Leicester
“Leicestershire’s Curve Theatre has put on many good shows in recent years – this one must surely rank amongst its very best. A remarkable, astounding and outstanding production.”
2. Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road
“There is much to learn here about the ways in which kindness can be shown to strangers, and much to enjoy in the tuneful melodies through which this assortment of characters finds their lives permanently affected, for good or for ill, by what happened over five days in Gander in mid-September 2001. A stunning, powerful and passionate production.”
3 .Six, Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street
“…there’s something about the feistiness, the sassiness, the riotousness of it all. I liked the music so much I bought the cast recording on the way out. It only leaves me to wish Six a long and glorious reign.”
4. Dear Evan Hansen, Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane
“If anything, this is a show that reminds its audiences that nobody deserves to be forgotten. May Dear Evan Hansen’s sun shine bright in the West End, and (we can but hope) for forever. It’s emotionally exhausting but wholly rewarding: I’ve already booked to see it again.”
5. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
“All things considered, it’s a gloriously fun and enthusiastic production. Or as one of the musical numbers rather colourfully puts it, it’s ‘F**kin’ Perfect’ – or, to quote the Bard himself, “If music be the food of love, play on”.
6. Brawn, King’s Head Theatre, Islington
“There isn’t an overarching critical incident that overshadows everything and everyone else being spoken about in the play, which I found refreshing. Top marks, then, for an absorbing and passionate production. One could even say it packed quite a punch.”
7. Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street
“A cast that works very well together and bounces off one another’s energies is also beneficial in a show where what isn’t said can sometimes ‘speak’ as much as what is spoken aloud. A stylish and sharply perceptive production, this is an excellent and fascinating end to the impressive Pinter at the Pinter season.”
8. Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street
“The production does not merely attempt to plonk the movie on stage: while there are some scenes lifted from the original script, there are others that are markedly different. The fusion between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is a snug fit, and this enthusiastic, impressive and breathtaking production must be seen to be believed.”
9. Yamato: Passion, Peacock Theatre, Holborn
“The choreography is vibrant and extremely precise. The grimacing and yelling put paid to any sense that all this is any way effortless, and there is the right balance between individual and ensemble performances. The so-called Japanese reserved nature, and the so-called British one, for that matter, were set aside for a couple of hours of sheer escapism. This was, all things considered, an exhilarating and worthwhile experience.”
10. Fiver, Southwark Playhouse
“It’s a lot of fun overall but also has poignant moments – one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this emotional rollercoaster. I’d rather have the world of Fiver than a completely cashless society any day of the week.”
…and from the Edinburgh Fringe
I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical, Underbelly Bristo Square
“I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this show, which manages to be both a no holds barred insight into the musical theatre world and a love letter to that same industry. A witty, heart-warming and energetic production.”
Big Band Does Broadway, theSpace Triplex
“There’s something here for musical theatre fans of every generation to enjoy, and every so often the band has the stage to itself. One of their arrangements fuses together the likes of Legally Blonde, The Producers and Hamilton, and when the performers are on stage, this is far from a stand and deliver concert – the choreography is tantalising and enthusiastic. A memorable and exuberant experience.”
In Loyal Company, Pleasance Dome
“Arthur ‘Joe’ Robinson (David William Bryan) comes across as a likeable figure. The script is, according to its notes, “based on a true story, but also contains fictional characters”, though all of it, whether made up or not, is thoroughly convincing. The performance includes generous doses of physical theatre – Bryan puts every cell in his body into portraying the horrors of the battlefield and the rather rudimentary medical treatment available.”
When, in 2015, the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Gypsy transferred to the West End, I got caught up in the general adulation of Imelda Staunton’s interpretation of Rose, the show’s leading lady who gets the biggest tunes in both acts. But eventually there were to be dissenting voices, and I remember one saying, “She just shouted”, which in fairness, did make for a rather flatter and less rounded stage personality than the more nuanced performance by Ria Jones in this Royal Exchange production in 2019-20. Dale Rapley’s Herbie was easily going to be superior to Peter Davison in the 2015 West End production: all he had to do, to be blunt, is sing well in the first place. (I found it rather ironic that the iconic line, “Sing out, Louise!” from this show should really have been better applied to Mr Davison than that production’s Louise, Lara Pulver.)
The in-the-round seating arrangement worked rather better for the Royal Exchange’s production of West Side Story than it does for this show: there were moments when the blocking could have been rather better: from my vantage point the view was occasionally completely obscured. I still got the gist of what was going on from the dialogue. What was missed was missed – c’est la vie – but the production is good at paying attention to detail, and with the cast at such proximity to those sat in the stalls, there’s a lot to notice when the sightlines are clear.
Jones’ Rose isn’t quite as terrifying as Rose has been known to be, with the result being that her daughters Louise (Melissa James) and June (Melissa Lowe) are timid towards an assertive mother rather than reluctantly resigned to tagging along with an overly aggressive one. One thinks of Judy Murray, the mother of two sons, Jamie and Andy, who have both found success in the tennis world (the latter rather more, at least in terms of career earnings) – there’s something to be said there about nurturing the talents of one’s own flesh and blood.
One also thinks, however, of Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, who snaps at his mother Margaret: “Stop living your life through me!” There isn’t, at least not to my mind, a definitive answer that can be applied to all situations as to quite how much pressure is optimal to help a child, teenager or young adult to success, and as the old adage puts it, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. One of the most poignant moments from the Chichester production came when Louise and Rose exit together, as though the daughter, enjoying a career in entertainment (even if it is not the kind that her mother approves of) is, from that point forward, going to look after the mother, rather than the other way around. That’s missing from this production, such that Rose is likely to remain stubbornly trying to run Louise’s affairs despite the younger actor now having a press agent, a maid and other assistants at her disposal.
Gypsy is, essentially, drama about drama, but also there’s an element of staying true to oneself and playing to one’s strengths. Nonetheless, there’s a need to keep up with the changing times, and ‘Mama’ Rose’s vaudeville act just couldn’t keep up with technological developments in the interwar period – namely, the rise of radio, television and ‘talking pictures’. This production is ably supported by two teams of eight children who rotate, each team appearing in four performances per week. The transition both in terms of storyline and staging from these children to their older equivalents (the show does a time hop at some point in the first half, leapfrogging several years at once) is simple but phenomenal.
A cranelike structure effectively acts as a proscenium arch, which seems to work best when there’s an audition going on in the show. Mazeppa (Susie Chard), Electra (Kate O’Donnell) and Tessie Tura (Rebecca Thornhill) stretch out their amusing burlesque sequence because they must repeat their acts so that everyone (more or less) can see what it is they’re up to. It’s three hours long (there is an interval) but for me it felt somewhat shorter, which is never a bad thing. There’s some fancy footwork throughout, a testament to the usual standards from choreographer Andrew Wright, particularly in a solo number by Tulsa (Alastair Crosswell at this performance, understudying for Louis Gaunt). A glorious performance from a hardworking cast.
The Barricade Boys probably shouldn’t call this show ‘Christmas Cabaret’. The audience does not eat at tables (well, there are some very small tables dotted about, but with only room for drinks), and other definitions of ‘cabaret’ don’t fit the bill either: smartly dressed, the four ‘boys’ – Simon Schofield, Dougie Carter, Lee Honey-Jones and George Tebbutt, indulge in neither burlesque nor striptease (fortunately or unfortunately), providing the audience instead with round after round of good harmonies and engaging stage presences from beginning to end.
Then again, ‘Christmas Concert’ suggests a mere stand-and-deliver approach. With no programmes available to patrons and no mention from the stage as to who came up with the choreography for the show, I have no idea who should take the praise for it. But with limited performance space, the boys move comfortably around in a slickly delivered set, brimming with confidence and making it look easy – the best kind of live performance. As ever, the criteria for being a Barricade Boy is that an actor must have performed in a production of Les Misérables. On the night I went along, their special guest was Samantha Barks, who perhaps ironically probably had the most Les Mis exposure of them all, having done the concert version, the Shaftesbury Avenue musical version and the motion picture.
I’m sorry to say it, but she was woefully underused, singing just the one (albeit beautiful) number before joining the lads in a modified version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, and then not to be seen at all in the second half. Ah well. Now, Les Mis and festive tunes seems an odd and potentially jarring mix, but the styles of music deployed here is even wider than that, encompassing chart music, rock ‘n’ roll (I was impressed by their rendition of ‘Johnny B Goode’) as well as musical numbers from other shows – the most memorable for me being a medley from West Side Story. Then there was the tune that was both a chart-topper and a (jukebox) musical theatre number, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which closes out We Will Rock You.
That wasn’t the only tune that brought the house down. The boys’ musical director, Noam Galperin, sat at the piano, glided through the wide range of songs with incredible precision. Their ‘banter’ (in inverted commas because, frankly, it was mostly rehearsed) was sufficiently augmented by ad-libs – and was considerably less cringey than it was the first time I encountered the boys, at their public launch concert at Charing Cross Theatre, when they were cumbersomely called ‘Boys Of The Barricade’.
It is certainly a change from the staple seasonal diet of pantomimes and shows with overly sentimental narratives. The boys are able to deliver both individually and collectively – their harmonies are a pleasure to listen to, and it was difficult not to feel very much involved in proceedings. A five-star festive treat.
At The Other Palace until 28 December 2019.
It’s a ‘whodunnit’, and as is usually the case with murder mysteries, the audience is kindly asked not to reveal who did do ‘it’. I’ve argued over the years that it wouldn’t make much difference to someone who hasn’t seen a murder mystery production, particularly if they have no intention of seeing it anyway. For example, let’s say ‘Sheila’ killed someone (there is no ‘Sheila’ in Curtains: A Musical Whodunnit). So what? Who is Sheila? Why should I care? And so on. But I suppose it is, in the end, better to keep faith with these productions. Suffice to say that I failed to work out who the culprits were in this show.
There are gags aplenty, some of which left me distinctly unimpressed (some seem to go back to the days of the Carry On film series). The best punchlines, despite Jason Manford headlining the cast as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, are given to Christopher Belling (Samuel Holmes, whose split-second comic timing was exquisite), the sharp-tongued British director of the American cast of a production called ‘Robbin’ Hood’, which becomes the musical within the musical. This ‘Robbin’ Hood’, however, is far from Sherwood Forest, set instead in Kansas, complete with cowboy costumes and dance routines. The show is doing a Boston run, and press night resulted in largely unfavourable views, including one which told its readership, “If you love ‘Oklahoma!’ stay there [and don’t bother coming over to Boston to see this terrible show]”.
Curtains was still in development when Fred Ebb (of Kander and Ebb fame) passed away in 2004. The musical numbers are not, for the most part, particularly memorable, except perhaps for ‘In The Same Boat’ because of several ‘rewrites’ in the rehearsal period of ‘Robbin’ Hood’, and the self-explanatory ‘The Woman’s Dead’. The nine-strong band led by Alex Beetschen glides through the sometimes-soaring melodies seemingly effortlessly.
There are plenty of references to life in the theatre which will be appreciated best by frequent patrons. Nothing is off-limits – the characters’ treatment of critics is comically hypocritical, with personal attacks and character stains doled out towards those who didn’t enjoy ‘Robbin’ Hood’, and an almost deification of those critics who were more favourable. Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock) is delightful as the forthright producer of ‘Robbin’ Hood’, with Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jermin) being one of those big star names who can’t actually sing brought in as a ‘bums on seats’ person, given the lead role until such times as, ahem, events (as in, ‘events, dear boy, events’) prevent her from seeing out the rest of the show’s run.
The problem is this: rather like in 42nd Street, the storyline comes to a standstill to allow a song-and-dance to take place. But 42nd Street has such a large cast the scale and spectacle of it all is borderline mind-blowing. Here, it just gets a bit too repetitive, and frankly, boring – although tell that to the man in the row behind me who chortled so much that I found myself missing bits of consequent spoken dialogue because of his loud guffaws.
Alas, it is not a ‘must see’ production, and as Manford pointed out in a post-show discussion, it is rare in being a (relatively) new musical that isn’t a jukebox musical or an adaptation of a film. The cast do their best with what they’re given, but this is neither Kander and Ebb’s Chicago nor their Cabaret. The show is also a tad too long (I agree with Sir Tim Rice who asserts that musicals should not exceed two-and-a-half hours, even if he broke his own guideline with From Here to Eternity, which came in at about two hours and forty-five minutes). While sufficiently enjoyable – just about – this is a show for fans of the musical theatre genre more than anyone else. I really can’t see it winning new converts.
Is a pantomime a pantomime if there’s only a smattering of audience participation and attempts by the audience to create some noise are responded to with a terse, “Shut up!”? I think I heard more cries of ‘Oh no it isn’t’ and ‘It’s behind you’ in the short walk from Oxford Circus Underground Station to the London Palladium than I did during Goldilocks and the Three Bears itself (that is, a few on Argyll Street and none at all in the theatre). Okay, so they’ve kept the running time reasonably comfortable, well within the right side of three hours. But there was no ghost gag. No confectionery was thrown into the audience. No slop scene. No rousing chorus with song sheet. An antagonist in the form of Paul O’Grady’s Baron Von Savage, but no sinister laugh. No rhyming couplets. What on earth was I watching?
Silly Billy (Paul Zerdin) and his trusty puppet sidekick, Sam, didn’t seem to know either: at least they said so in their rapid round-up of events towards the end of the show. The recent Palladium panto tradition of getting some children on stage (vetted by front of house staff at the interval who would speak to their parents to make sure they weren’t going to burst into tears on suddenly being exposed to the Palladium audience and having to speak into a microphone) has also been abandoned – and with it, sending children away with gifts for their time and contributions. So, what’s left?
Goldilocks (Sophie Isaacs) helps her mother, Dame Betty Barnum (Gary Wilmot) run a circus, and that narrative point alone is sufficient for introductions to various acts. These said acts themselves are the saving grace of the production – Peter Pavlov & The Globe of Speed were a particular highlight: several motorbikes darting about in a large spherical structure at close proximity. The Skating Medini, from Italy, spin around a confined space quite impressively on rollerblades, while Phil Hitchcock, aka ‘The Marvellous Mysterioso’ rightly kept his best magic tricks until last.
I was personally in musical theatre heaven as Wilmot rattled through many, many lyrics from different shows in ‘Betty’s Medley’. A tune from 42nd Street was delightful. All of which would have been fine in a musical theatre concert or a variety show. But if a production is billed and promoted as a pantomime, then it should at least try to be one. The Ringmaster (Julian Clary) had it right when he turned to the audience and quipped – with Dame Betty stood on the other side of the stage, “You do know it’s Gary Wilmot in a frock, don’t you?”
I can’t fault the said frocks, and other costumes, particularly Clary’s, which, as in previous years, are lavishly over the top. And I have no problem with Clary’s levels of innuendo – if anything, at least at the performance I attended, he could have been feistier in his asides and ad-libs. It is simply this: this panto isn’t a panto. It’s a real pity, really, going off on a different tangent instead of building on the successes of previous seasons at the Palladium, especially when this year’s cast includes the likes of returners like Nigel Havers (this year in the role of Daddy Bear) and a very likeable Palladium ‘panto’ newcomer in Matt Baker (playing Joey, The Clown). Whilst enjoyable in some respects, it just doesn’t fit the bill.
Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) told the audience at his 2008 concert at the O2 Arena that he recognised that they had been “geographically and financially inconvenienced”. Heading off to North Greenwich is certainly a bit out of the way, even for people like yours truly that live in London, and the O2 Arena’s stringent ‘no food or drink’ policy does mean pretty much every single trader after security does a roaring trade. Except, perhaps, the popcorn guy, who couldn’t really compete with the hot food outlet I queued up for, with a selection of pizza, chicken strips, chips and other pleasurable staples. Junk food hasn’t gone out of style just yet: not that I would have indulged, but I couldn’t even see a salad option.
Jack Whitehall isn’t doing badly these days. That is, if he ever did ‘badly’, having been born in the private Portland Hospital, attending public school and then – to cut a long story short – becoming well known through a combination of writing, stand-up comedy, television acting and presenting. This stand-up set, Whitehall’s “biggest tour to date”, in his own words, is all very well-drilled and well-rehearsed, and for all its polish and slickness, it somewhat lacks the roughness and ruggedness that the very best of comedians somehow muster even in a borderline soulless arena.
I suspect he’s trying not to repeat what happened on a previous tour, when, on the night the DVD of the said tour was being recorded, he plainly forgot a joke he was telling. And I mustn’t be too negative about someone getting it ‘right’ – the audience, after all, have not paid to see someone screw up. But Whitehall has a way of following up his punchlines with remarks that immediately make one realise that not much, if anything, that he’s just said has even a sliver of truth to it. Put it this way – if you really think he shops at Lidl, you’re an idiot. Mind you, I liked his observations about those conveyor toasters in restaurants in hotels: I must confess I’ve never used one, but I’ve seen others do it, and it’s just not something I have the time or the inclination for. Even when I’m away from home.
There’s a lot of material relating to – well, faecal matter. Would ‘It’s All Shit’ have been a better tour title than ‘Stood Up’? A story about a sign referring to “active diarrhoea”. Another one about when he had problems down below whilst in Cambodia and took a selfie of the affected region to send to his Harley Street doctor. Still another about his now ex-girlfriend who started farting in his company in an attempt to make him love her less. Oh, and one about his father Michael wanting to use the toilet whilst they were out filming on location and there weren’t any conveniences nearby.
There’s no doubting Whitehall’s energy and enthusiasm, however, bouncing and bounding about, giving it his all. And for the most part, he played it safe – for example, he talks about the Prince of Wales but there’s nothing about the Duke of York. A closing video appealed to the musical theatre lover in me, though I wonder if an arena audience at large enjoyed it nearly as much. The various milk alternative options at certain coffee shops were lampooned, as was his mother’s seeming overindulgent relationship with her pet dog. A pleasant and comfortable night out.
Even with the surtitles (or captions, as the captions provider StageTEXT likes to call them), not everything is entirely clear in this production of My Mother Said I Never Should, a show I only went to see as it has been recommended to me by various theatregoers over the years, and I kept missing them – even a production at St James’ Theatre in London (now The Other Palace) came and went before I had a chance to check it out. On the National Express coach up (because, you know, the trains can no longer be trusted and are not nearly as cost-efficient as road travel), I was reading about floods that had affected Yorkshire: Sheffield itself was well protected by miscellaneous defences, but elsewhere, villages were suffering bigtime.
Anyway, Jackie (EJ Raymond) communicates primarily in British Sign Language, being D/deaf. Everyone else – Doris (Ali Briggs), Rosie (Lisa Kelly) and Margaret (Jude Mahon) regularly engage in BSL too, though we have the captions and the spoken word as well. Not too much is lost whenever Jackie signs without corresponding captions – either someone else will say what she’s just signed, or else it is entirely possible to get the gist of it from the way the conversation is nonetheless flowing. I found rather ingenious, and without wanting to come across like a patronising twat, it must be a little taster of what it is like for someone hard of hearing to comprehend what is being when people with reasonable levels of hearing are conversing amongst themselves.
Slightly confusingly, at other times Jackie can be ‘heard’, thanks to the voice of Genevieve Barr. On occasion the ‘actual’ Jackie can be heard too, usually when frustrated or upset or having an outburst – but the point is well made: one way or another, she struggles to get her points across. Raymond is an excellent actor, such that sometimes no translation is even necessary thanks to the sheer expressions of emotion.
But it doesn’t help that the story isn’t in straightforward chronological order, and despite the use of projections, each location looks pretty much the same as all the others. Some scenes are set in Cheadle Hulme, which is closer to Stockport (unless I’m reading Google Maps incorrectly) but is apparently classed as being in Manchester, and others (according to the script) in Raynes Park, southwest London, though frankly those scenes could have been anywhere down south.
The show’s critical incident arises out of that protective trait people have, in this case towards a daughter – information is withheld in order not to hurt the younger one’s feelings but when she finds out what the cold, hard facts are, it hurts all the more than it would have done if she’d been told in the first place, rather than when she was older and therefore more (allegedly) capable emotionally and psychologically speaking. Act One, coming in at 85 minutes, could have been a little pacier – the more comfortable 45-minute Act Two is riveting to the core.
After a while, though, one almost forgets about all the captions and the sign language, gripped by an oftentimes poignant storyline about four generations of women trying to live their lives as best they can in the different circumstances of their times. It’s relatable, at least to some extent, for many people – though not for me, as I had such a dysfunctional upbringing I was rarely spoken to with the civility and love that these characters have for one another. There are some difficult choices to be made in life, and the non-judgemental approach taken here leaves the audience with a generous serving of food for thought.
It was one of those concerts I popped along to without intending to say anything about it other than, ‘yes, I had a swell time’ – or perhaps nothing at all if it wasn’t all that. But I found Kelli O’Hara’s concert at Cadogan Hall on Remembrance Sunday evening so delightful I ought to put something down. It was rather eventful – whatever hand cream she’d used was strong enough to sting her eyes when she then touched her face, such that she appeared to be overcome by emotion when in fact it was a mere allergic reaction of some kind. But the show must go on, and so she soldiered on through to the interval. Girl power and all that.
I only really came to know who O’Hara is thanks to a Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King & I that came across to the West End and took up residence for a limited season at the London Palladium. Not every American performer can do a decent British accent (the Broadway cast recording of the Cyndi Lauper musical Kinky Boots being a case in point), and I’m aware it works both ways – some British actors (no names) have utterly appalling American accents. Quite a few remind me of Stewie Griffin in the animated comedy television series Family Guy. O’Hara took the advice of her dialect coach when she was over in London, and rounded out her vowels so she sounded less like the 1930s diction of HM Queen Elizabeth II and more like the mid-nineteenth century tones of her character.
“I’m a soprano,” she deadpans, having already demonstrated the full strength of her voice. ‘I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy’ from South Pacific seemed effortless, as did ‘They Don’t Let You In The Opera (If You’re A Country Star)’, though those two numbers, aside from appearing in different acts, couldn’t be more different if they tried. The latter, written by her musical director, Daniel Lipton, and David Rossmer, tells the story of a country and western singer who wanted to join an opera company but found herself up against people who were convinced their patrons would never take to her on account of her rural background. Years later, she attends an opera performance whilst heavily pregnant, and the baby arrived so quickly after her waters broke that she gave birth in the auditorium. Because her screams and cries took the form of a soprano singing an aria, the opera company decided they would have her on their books after all.
It is more hilarious than I’ve made it sound. The evening was more sublime than it was ridiculous, taking in ‘That’s How You Say Goodbye’, one of the songs cut from the Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012) musical The Sweet Smell of Success, the title song from the Adam Guettel musical The Light in the Piazza, and a tune from Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County. ‘Madison’ didn’t really appeal to me when I saw it in London (at the Menier Chocolate Factory) but then O’Hara really is one of those people that can sing the phone book (do we still have those?) and make it sound beautiful and engaging. ‘She Loves Me’ became ‘He Loves Me’, and the closing number, ‘Make Someone Happy’ (from Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green’s (1914-2002) Do Re Mi) felt anticlimactic to a fellow audience member, but that was before O’Hara returned with the jaunty ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady, and then (and this really was slightly anticlimactic) ‘La Vie en Rose’, made famous by Edith Piaf (1915-1963). My schoolboy French is insufficient to pass judgement on it.
Getting to know (so to speak) Kelli O’Hara was a decent and pleasant experience, and a varied one at that, with a tune by Greg Naughton, her husband, and his band called The Sweet Remains included. ‘Finishing The Hat’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, had its own fresh interpretation, and as with every enjoyable evening, the whole thing was over all too soon.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.