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.
There are many, many films I never get around to watching, such is my penchant for live theatre. I haven’t yet figured out a way to say this without sounding like a pompous ass, so please accept my apologies, but these days I receive more invitations to theatre shows than I am able to physically attend. Being unused to evenings off, whenever I get one it’s usually because it’s the Christmas / New Year holiday season – or perhaps the Easter weekend – but if it isn’t, my tendency is to fill it with something or other, be it a repeat visit to a long-running show I very much enjoy, or a seat-filling opportunity. The latter one I can’t say too much about, suffice to say there are numerous seat-filler clubs out there, and if you’re happy to attend radio and/or television recordings, these are usually free of charge.
I still retain a cinema membership at Curzon, though the long-term future of the Wimbledon branch (the one nearest to me) remains uncertain as the cinema is now the only part of an otherwise empty building that once housed the local HMV record store. Anyway, as the shelf life of movies at the cinema tends to be fairly short, I had imagined Judy had been and gone, but as it was still on the listings on the evening I had available, I decided I’d take the plunge. Better late than never, though I had one or two responses saying ‘never’ was the better option – some people simply prefer watching movies actually starring Judy Garland (1922-1969) rather than ones about her.
It’s not strictly in chronological order, but flitting between decades is hardly problematic, not least because there’s Judy (Renée Zellweger) and there’s Young Judy (Darci Shaw). Young Judy is unsure of herself, and the stern attitude of Louis B Mayer (1884-1957) (Richard Cordery) didn’t help. Mayer’s conduct towards Garland and other women in his employment at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was deplorable, at least by modern standards – those who didn’t do precisely what he wanted were threatened with all sorts of repercussions and consequences. Older Judy, by contrast, is the sort of person that people like the theatre producer Bernard Delfont (1909-1994) (Michael Gambon) and Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), the personal assistant assigned to Garland (presumably by Delfont) were being perhaps overly kind to.
That Garland was in England at all was not out of choice: her work in the United States had all but dried up. Fair enough, but the decision to leave for London meant leaving her young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd) in the care of ex-husband Sidney Luft (1915-2005) (Rufus Sewell). The film takes its time in portraying her decision-making process and the care taken to soften the blow as much as possible as she breaks the news to her children. In some ways this is even more difficult viewing than watching her obstinacy towards others fuelled by addiction.
As the film makes clear, there were more photogenic women than Garland around at the time, but few (if anybody) could match her singing voice. But this was somebody clearly damaged beyond repair by exploitative movie executives and producers, who (as portrayed in this movie) even starved Garland, insisting that she took pills in place of eating meals. What rapport Garland was able to muster during her ‘Talk of the Town’ concerts in London demonstrated some excellent comic timing. I suppose these days audience members would have simply got up and left if things weren’t going so well. Back then, they stayed but they heckled a poor performance that started late – in Garland’s case it is as though they resented the idea that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz dared to grow up.
Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) are the sort of Garland obsessives that wait at stage door in the rain long after everyone else had left, hoping that Garland would still yet make an appearance. Their subplot is pleasing to see but was ultimately superfluous, resulting in underlining a perceived stereotype of Garland’s fanbase being predominantly comprised of gay men rather than driving the film’s narrative forward. There’s a feelgood ending which makes for good musical theatre, but this is a motion picture, and on-screen text merely telling the audience that Garland passed away months after the events just portrayed seems too abrupt an ending. Judy Garland surely deserves better.
“I keep talking about last year,” Jeremy Jordan muses in his inimitable style – his London gigs at Cadogan Hall were hugely enjoyable. I wasn’t originally intending to go but the dates kept changing because of Jordan’s other commitments. When the dates were finally confirmed as final, it transpired I could make it after all, so took advantage of one of the returned tickets. The party atmosphere of the previous gig was somewhat subdued this time around, and not because of politics, either in Britain or in the United States.
This was a revealing concert – in the first half, ‘JJ’ spoke candidly about his time on Supergirl, an American superhero television series. While the first series was shot in Los Angeles, subsequent ones were filmed in Vancouver, which lowered the production costs for the show but, more pertinently for Jordan, took him away from friends and family for an extended period. One could have heard a pin drop as he poignantly explained how he struggled to readjust to being around his peers and relatives again after having learned to cope with being alone. It was definitely on point with the increasing amount of mental health awareness in the world at large.
Then there’s parenthood: Jordan and his wife, Ashley Spencer, have a daughter, Clara Eloise Jordan, born in April 2019. “Everything they say is true,” he beams, with reference to the amount of ‘diapers’ and other baby related consumables that get used in large quantities so quickly. The second half, which kicked off with an alternative version of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ from Oklahoma!, included a number of tunes from the motion picture The Greatest Showman, which Jordan provided demo vocals for. There’s a whole story spun out, the most salient point being that he was under the impression, with some justification, that he was in contention for the part of Phillip Carlyle, which eventually went to Zac Efron.
Versatility is the name of the game with Jordan, who decided against during the usual standards from the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years – a musical motion picture in which he did star in – ditching the likes of ‘The Schmuel Song’ and ‘Moving Too Fast’ for a medley of numbers usually sung by ‘Cathy’ rather than ‘Jamie’. When the crowd wouldn’t leave at the end of the concert, a quick on-stage conference between Jordan and his musical director, Benjamin Rauhala, resulted in a rendering of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, and a deserved third standing ovation in response.
There was a fair amount crammed into a show that sent the crowd home well before 10pm on a Friday evening, including a Sam Smith number (ticking a box marked ‘include something from the country you’re visiting’) and what has become a standard for his shows, ‘Santa Fe’ from Disney’s Newsies. A remarkable talent, always welcome in London should he ever wish to cross the Atlantic again at some point in the future.
Sunday night at Cadogan Hall is becoming a bit of a fairly regular thing with people who enjoy musical theatre concerts, or gigs performed by musical theatre performers. And for Cinderella, a 6:30pm start ensures that everyone that lives within a reasonable distance of central London should be well on their way (if not home and dry) by midnight. Here, a producing partnership between Take Two Theatricals and Club 11 London continues, and has excelled itself this time around, complete with impressive costumes and projections.
Naturally, a full production with a decent budget would have had some way of ‘transforming’ a pumpkin into a carriage, for instance – in this concert format, a video suffices. Dance breaks allow the London Musical Theatre Orchestra (LMTO to its many players and supporters) to take centre stage of their own accord, conducted as ever by the effervescent Freddie Tapner. In terms of plot, there are few surprises (which I will summarise later), which makes the levels of engagement with this concert production all the more astonishing – we know what’s about to happen, and we expect Ella (Christine Allado) to be subjected to some rather unpleasant treatment before the tide eventually turns in her favour.
It’s Douglas Carter Beane’s book that makes this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical feel fresh and sprightly, brought up to date for an early twenty-first century audience while retaining the rather majestic style of the much older musical numbers. Prince Topher’s (Jac Yarrow) call for a General Election in a month’s time seemed remarkably topical (I can’t possibly think why) – and Yarrow excels in the royal role, with the kind of voice and stage presence (and, dare I say it without being subjected to abuse for being complimentary, looks) that should stand him in good stead for a long and successful stage career. Both Charlotte (Jodie Jacobs) and Madame (Mazz Murray) make much of their roles as snotty and dismissive stepsister and stepmother respectively, expressive without being too hammy. As Madame puts it, she is in between “upper middle class and lower upper class”, and woe betide anyone who stands in the way of her social ambitions.
Interestingly, the other stepsister, Gabrielle (Zoë Rainey), is rather more sympathetic to Ella than more traditional versions of the story, and there’s a subplot involving Jean-Michel (Dean John-Wilson), a political activist who is seeking ways to speak with Prince Topher to highlight miscellaneous injustices within the kingdom. That the kingdom is in such disarray came about as a result of Topher’s parents having passed away, which led to a Lord Protector (or was it Lord Chancellor?), Sebastian (Jérôme Pradon) running the country, but ultimately looking after his personal interests rather than those of the wider public. As Ella tells Topher, “You need to open your eyes to what’s happening in your kingdom.”
Dianne Pilkington’s Fairy Godmother sang beautifully in ‘There’s Music in You’ in the second half, while Jacobs brought the house down shortly after the interval in ‘Stepsister’s Lament’. A delightful evening – yes, it was a crowd pleaser, but a thrilling and magical (yes, I went there) one at that.
Where did the sea go? It was here this morning
It was taken away by the tide – a simple word of the amazingly complex combined effect of the gravitational pulls of the Moon and Sun, together with the Earth’s rotation. Put simply, the Moon and Sun pull the sea closet to them up in a bulge, draining it from elsewhere. As the bulge moves around the Earth, the tide in any one place rises and falls. When the Sun and Moon are aligned in a straight line with the Earth, their pull combines and we get a bigger tide (called a spring tide). The height of the tide in any given place depends on a number of factors, including the depth of the sea and the shape of the coastline. The Bristol Channel has one of the biggest tidal ranges in the world because the rising water from the Atlantic is funnelled into a narrow estuary. The sheltered Baltic and Mediterranean seas, by contrast, have small tides.
Why don’t we feel the Earth spinning?
At the latitude of Britain, the ground under your feet is moving at about 600mph, so you might think it’s a wonder we don’t all feel permanently queasy. Yet we only feel motion through accelerations and decelerations – that is, when the speed or direction of movement changes. Standing on the spinning Earth, our speed is pretty high, but constant; and, while our direction does change, it does so slowly, at just one complete turn every 24 hours. That means the overall acceleration is too low to notice.
Why is the sky blue?
Some people think it’s because the sky is reflecting the blue of the sea, but that doesn’t make sense, because the sea has many colours – including white when it’s frozen over. The real explanation is that sunlight is made up of all the colours of the rainbow, from red to blue to violet. Each colour represents a wavelength of light, with red being the longest and violet the shortest. While red light can easily glide over tiny particles in its path, blue and violet light has more energy, and is seriously affected by them. Our atmosphere is packed with these particles, in the form of nitrogen and oxygen molecules, which scatter the blue-violet part of the sun’s light over the sky. Add in the fact that our eyes are more sensitive to blue light than to violet, and that’s why we see the sky as blue.
Why do cats purr?
Nobody knows for sure. It’s not simply because they’re contented. Cats sometimes purr while giving birth, or while recovering from serious injury. Studies have revealed an odd fact that might help explain it. Recordings of purrs have shown that they typically have a frequency of about 20-40 cycles per second – half of frequency of mains electricity ‘hum’. That just happens to be the frequency of vibration that appears to promote bone healing. Which might be why your gran always seems to have the cat sat on her knee.
Can you ever get to the end of the rainbow?
No chance, which means that pot of gold remains elusive. That’s because a rainbow is not a physical object, but simply the result of two refractions (where light bends as it hits water from air or vice versa). Its appearance depends on rays of sunlight striking raindrops at the right angle to enter the drops, reflect off their internal surfaces. Then re-emerge on the right path to enter our eyes. The colours come from the raindrop surface separating out the different hues that go to make up white sunlight, from red at one end of the spectrum to violet at the other. So we only see a rainbow where the sun, the raindrops and our eyes are in just the right relative positions. If we move towards a rainbow, that relationship changes – keeping its end forever out of reach.
Why do things look smaller when they’re further away?
It’s a matter of visual perspective, which depends on how much of our field of view an object takes up. Imagine lines drawn from your eye to the head and feet of a person standing nearby. Now imagine similar lines drawn to the same person, standing twice as far away: the lines form a narrower angle at your eye, so the person takes up less of your field of view. This change in apparent size is one of the clues our brains use to work out how far away things are.
Why do explosives explode?
Explosives such as nitro-glycerine and TNT (trinitrotoluene) are notorious for their devastating power, but the way they work is simple. When they detonate, their constituent chemicals produce gas clouds that expand at incredible speed, blasting anything in their path. The speed – several thousand miles per hour – is due to the high temperatures of the chemical reactions that propel the expansion of the gas cloud.
What’s the deadliest creature in the world?
That depends on what you mean by deadly. If you mean responsible for killing the greatest number of humans, a good case could be made for humans themselves, who murder about 500,000 of their own kind globally each year. But if deadly means most likely to lead to death if you mess with it, then it’s probably the golden poison frog, from the rainforests of Colombia. This beautiful but tiny creature – bright yellow and barely 1.5in long – oozes an astonishingly lethal poison known as a batrachotoxin from its skin. Just 100 micrograms of the poison, which amounts to a barely visible speck, is enough to kill you.
How do camels survive without drinking?
Camels can go for more than a month without drinking, but not by storing water in their humps – that’s a myth. The humps store fat. Camels do without water by conserving every last drop of it and having bodies adapted to dehydration. They barely lose any water through excretion or sweating, having evolved to cope with large changes in body temperature, and even have oval red blood cells, rather than round ones like other mammals, which helps them to keep flowing even when the blood is thicker due to dehydration.
In the Second World War, tickle torture was used by Nazi prison officers. Josef Kohout (1915-1994), writing under the pen name Heinz Heger, wrote Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel – in English, ‘The Men With the Pink Triangle’, published in 1972. Kohout was jailed for being homosexual. With reference to another inmate, he wrote: “The first game that the SS sergeant and his men played was to tickle their victim with goose feathers, on the soles of his feet, between his legs, in the armpits, and on other parts of his naked body. At first the prisoner forced himself to keep silent, while his eyes twitched in fear and torment from one SS man to the other. Then he could not restrain himself and finally he broke out in a high-pitched laughter that very soon turned into a cry of pain.”
This is not the basis for Tickle – The Musical (can you imagine?), which takes as its source material a different true story, told in the film documentary Tickled, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. Farrier is also the narrator of the movie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016, and is a New Zealand-based reporter, who wanted to investigate online videos under the banner of ‘competitive endurance tickling’, usually involving photogenic young men performing the roles of tickler and ticklee. Tickle – The Musical dramatizes this activity after Davina Diamond (Amy Sutton), one of the executives of a media company run by Tina Tickle (Richard Watkins), chances on Chris (James McDowall) momentarily tickling Callum (Ben Brooker), and with the offer of substantial sums of money to have them filmed in a studio tickling one another, the boys think nothing of being rewarded handsomely for half a day’s ‘work’.
The blocking in the show could have been better, taking into account the audience is sat on three sides of the stage, and with the actors singing unamplified, this occasionally caused problems depending on one’s vantage point – the seating configuration meant someone was almost always singing upstage to one section of the audience or another. David Eaton does a sterling job on the keyboards as musical director, and the production itself rattles through seventeen musical numbers in a single act. Tina Tickle herself is something of an elusive figure for the participants, and when Chris is about to embark on a university course, Diamond bizarrely asserts that both Chris and Callum are owned by the tickle films company.
Chris and Callum’s reputations are smirched in ways that are too much of a spoiler to detail here: suffice to say, Tickle (whose ‘real’ name we don’t ever find out) and Diamond’s actions compel the boys to seek legal advice. The musical doesn’t give many details as to what laws were invoked, concentrating instead on the downfall of Tickle and her empire after a media exposure lays bare the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes. A running gag throughout the show makes it clear that, officially at least, there is nothing ‘gay’ about watching men not wearing very much at all rolling around on the floor because they are being tickled into a state of distress.
Indicative of how progressive contemporary times can be, a coming out is treated with warmth and immediate acceptance. A suitably hilarious bit of audience participation had me in stitches (without even having to actually do anything). Character development is good, with song lyrics more often than not advancing the narrative. Oh, and one more thing – book to sit in the front row at one’s own risk.
At King’s Head Theatre, Islington, until 26 October 2019.
A (sort of) V-shaped seating configuration, one I’ve never seen before at the Bridewell Theatre, maximises the available performance space for this dance production of Dangerous Liaisons, set curiously both at the time of writing and into the near future – precisely, perhaps a year or two leading up to the 92nd Academy Awards, not to take place until 9 February 2020, and then its aftermath. To set all the dancing in context, a relatively brief preamble in the form of a news magazine programme called ‘All Access Hollywood’ introduces a large number of characters quite speedily, with interviews with Audrey Gercourt (Hannah Roberts), a movie director, together with members of the cast of her latest motion picture, ‘Daughters’.
It seeks to be unashamedly feminist – in another video towards the end of proceedings, Gercourt talks about the movie’s contribution to a “new age of film” where “women’s stories are no longer forced to sit at the back of the bus”. Elsewhere, an exploration of the term ‘feminist’ considers whether its proponents really do wish for ‘equal rights’. The line of argument could be considered somewhat superficial (where, for instance, do non-binary persons fit into a reorganised world in which ‘the patriarchy’ has been subjugated?) but as far as this contemporary narrative derived from a 1782 novel goes, it suffices – just about.
Central to the action, perhaps ironically, are two men, Alec Merteuil (Peter Stonnell), the ex-partner of Gercourt who now seeks to destroy her reputation, and Sebastian Valmont (Olivier Mamet), billed as the leading man in Gercourt’s movie. The main elements of the novel are retained – Valmont seduces Amanda Tourvel (Lisa Eastman), an actress in Gercourt’s movie billed as a ‘Hollywood icon’, but later rejects her, having been persuaded by the ever-devious Merteuil to do so.
Her pain is palpably expressed through dance, movement and tears, even if I felt she ought to dust herself off and realise that there’s plenty more fish in the sea. Valmont takes up Merteuil’s encouragement to win over Cecile Volanges (an energetic Rachel Savage), another actress in Gercourt’s film, but she has fallen in love with Aaron Danceny (Wing Ho Lin), one of the film’s creative team (at least, I think that’s what the character’s narrative purpose was). In yet another twist, Merteuil and Danceny are discovered in bed together in a later scene.
Even the duel in the novel between Danceny and Valmont is worked into the storyline, though of course – without giving too much away – a duel isn’t really a duel at all without weapons. The dances are performed to the rhythms of recorded music, though it seems something of a glaring omission to have left out who played what instruments from the show’s programme, or indeed who composed what. What I can say is that the music was, taken overall, a good mix of high tempo and more mellow numbers.
Two of the scenes were set in ‘rehearsal studios’, and although some efforts were made to portray an authentic rehearsal process, it could, to be blunt, have been more convincing. It was of some amusement to me that characters (for the most part, anyway) picked up from the directors and choreographers on what they were being asked to do with implausible speed and accuracy. There’s a decent amount of fancy footwork for those who want to enjoy a production of this kind without having to pay too much attention to the storyline. While the narrative arc isn’t always watertight, the dancing is, which I suppose is the main thing here. Aspects of this dynamic production highlight the fickleness and superficiality that continues to exist in the entertainment industry. Slightly exhausting to watch but nonetheless worthwhile.
I used to head to Shaftesbury Avenue to catch the West End production of Les Misérables every year on 8th October, until one year (don’t ask me which one) the date fell on a Sunday, and then I couldn’t be bothered after that. The date is significant for keen fans and followers of the show, because the show opened at the Barbican Centre on 8 October 1985, and every year since there has been some sort of gesture, ranging from a low key speech from the lead actor at curtain call to a big concert extravaganza at The O2 Arena.
The other reason I stopped indulging in annual ‘mizery’ on 8th October was – and this will sound snobbish – the behaviour of other theatre patrons. One year the back of my seat was kicked repeatedly by a small child, which is one thing, but another year it was an adult who did it. Then there was that time when some woman in the row behind decided to ‘sing’ (inverted commas mine) along to most of the show in this horrid but noticeable monotone. This year I went along to ‘The Staged Concert’ version, a sort of interregnum (or, if one wished to be unkind, purgatory) between the closure of ‘the original’ production at the Queen’s Theatre, itself a transfer from the Palace Theatre, and the opening of a new production at what is now the Sondheim Theatre, which loses the famed revolve (or turntable), replacing it with superior lighting and illustrated backdrops.
The conduct of those around me this time around wasn’t perfect – the cynic in me thinks the battle for decency and decorum in the stalls is well and truly lost, unfortunately – but at least no phones went off, and those who insisted on talking to one another at full conversational volume did so only briefly (but still…). A concert version does lose some of the intricacies and nuances of a full production – both Fantine (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Eponine (Shan Ako) die standing up, for instance, and for some reason Ako came across as someone garnering votes for Britain’s Got Talent with every line. At the close of ‘On My Own’, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Ant and/or Dec would then have appeared, telling the audience to call a certain telephone number to place their votes.
It is good for the show to welcome one of its original cast members back to the barricade thirty-four years on, but Michael Ball’s Inspector Javert wasn’t as stern as the character can be, and some of the words were lost (notwithstanding that most of the audience, myself included, knew most if not all of the words anyway) in a lack of clear diction. So much spit was coming out of Mr Ball’s mouth during the Soliloquy, occasionally even spraying the front row, that I wondered if a stagehand was going to appear with a ‘Caution: Wet Floor’ sign.
Alfie Boe’s Jean Valjean is one Les Mis regulars have seen before, and the power in his vocals continues to impress. Earl Carpenter as the Bishop of Digne and then as Bamatabois practically personified the adage attributed to Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) that ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’ – or, to quote Dabbs Greer (1917-2007), ‘every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead’. Katy Secombe as Madame Thénardier was a hoot, as was Stephen Matthews as her husband (standing in for Matt Lucas, who according to his own Twitter was “in bed with tonsillitis and a cough”).
Alfonso Casado Trigo conducted a 26-strong orchestra, and with many cast members having been in Les Misérables before, this proved to be something of a trip down memory lane for regulars. First timers to the show might struggle slightly with understanding the narrative without the staging of a full production (a synopsis is included in the programme) but otherwise it is, as ever, an honour and a privilege to have joined in this crusade.
“It’s a party! Happy, happy, happy!”
It doesn’t cost that much to spend the weekend in Edinburgh, especially when Virgin Trains runs so late the ‘train manager’ repeatedly encourages passengers to go to the train operating company’s website to claim compensation. And my relative familiarity with the city centre thanks to previous visits to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe meant I could navigate my way around fairly easily, though I shall never quite get used to how steep the inclines are when getting about.
As there has been a production of Mamma Mia! stationed in the West End for the past twenty years, it never occurred to me to travel out of town to catch a touring show. But Bat Out of Hell the Musical’s Sharon Sexton and Rob Fowler had been cast in a ‘UK and International Tour’, news substantial enough to be broadcast by Elaine Paige on national radio, and my loyalty to the ‘Bat Family’ is as yet undiminished. So, I went north of Hadrian’s Wall to see what the fuss was all about.
The show opened on Broadway soon after ‘9/11’, and at the time there was some speculation as to whether the opening might be postponed. But the decision was made to go ahead, and such a feelgood musical must have lifted the spirits of a city in mourning. Now, Mamma Mia! is also the show that I bring up in conversation whenever a would-be reviewer (or even someone who just wants to know a little more about what it’s like) asks about what my approach would be to reviewing something a production that isn’t to my personal taste but objectively has a lot going for it. Give it the star rating and the review it deserves, irrespective of whether one cares for jukebox musicals or any other distinguishing characteristic of a given production.
Some of the more local audience members have been seeing touring productions of Mamma Mia! for years, booking each time it comes to Edinburgh and, to coin a phrase, having the time of their lives. Saturday night musical theatre crowds are almost always that little bit more electric than audiences during the week: this one was particularly fiery. While it may be true that, as someone said to me before the performance, “You can’t go wrong with ABBA”, even the repeat visitors seemed to be very impressed with what they’d seen: a cast genuinely enjoying themselves and wanting to give the crowd their very best.
A number of children were in the audience dressed in ‘Donna and the Dynamos’ costumes, and popped round to the stage door afterwards, and it is not beyond reason to imagine that one or more of them just might be treading the boards at Edinburgh Playhouse one day. Indeed, it’s a dream come true for this production’s Emma Mullen. In a recent tweet, Mullen recalls when she “first saw Mamma Mia! in this very theatre. Here I am 15 years later about to open the UK & International tour as Sophie. I literally cannot thank my lucky stars enough.”
Mullen has a star quality about her. A warm and engaging stage presence combines with a strong but nonetheless beautiful singing voice. A wide range of human emotions is convincingly portrayed during the course of the evening, from delightful bliss at the prospect of getting married to her boyfriend Sky (Toby Miles, who couldn’t have gone into a more different role from his previous one as Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables) to palpable stress and confusion at the close of the first half as her elaborate wedding plans start to go considerably askew.
There are plenty of laughs abound in an almost relentlessly enthusiastic show – the choreography (Anthony Van Laast) is a delight. The musical numbers are fairly evenly distributed amongst the cast, with some expanding to full ensemble song and dance tunes – such as ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. I shall get some stick from theatre purists for saying this, but the performance was enhanced by members of the audience clapping to the beat of the music and singing along – there wasn’t anyone in my section being obnoxious and/or woefully out of tune. Standouts for me were (in no particular order) Rosie (Nicky Swift) singing ‘Take A Chance On Me’, Sam Carmichael’s (Rob Fowler) emotionally charged rendering of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and Donna Sullivan (Sharon Sexton) bringing the house down with ‘The Winner Takes It All’.
As for Sexton, I can only agree with Mike Smith in The Edinburgh Reporter, who wrote that her “portrayal as Sophie’s mother achieved the considerable feat of making you laugh one minute and having a lump in the throat the next”. In the end, it all builds up to the final bit, the famed extended curtain call where the audience rises to its feet when the narrative has run its course, in anticipation of a high-octane medley of ABBA tunes that are so very familiar. One would have to have a heart of stone not to come away beaming from this incredibly joyful and enthusiastic show.
At Edinburgh Playhouse until 28 September 2019. Then La Seine Musicale in Paris, 4-20 October 2019; Alhambra Theatre Bradford, 30 October-23 November 2019; Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, 10 December 2019-5 January 2020; Theatre Royal Newcastle, 22 January-8 February 2020; Mayflower Theatre Southampton, 11-29 February 2020; Hull New Theatre, 3-21 March 2020; Royal Concert Hall Nottingham, 24 March-4 April 2020; Liverpool Empire, 28 April-9 May 2020; Birmingham Hippodrome, 12-30 May 2020; Bristol Hippodrome, 2-20 June 2020; Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, 23 June-11 July 2020; Theatre Royal Plymouth, 21 July-8 August 2020.
Hearing Caissie Levy singing ‘With You’ from Ghost The Musical, and singing it so well, cast my mind back to the time when I heard it sung so badly by Sarah Harding in a subsequent touring production of that show when it came to New Wimbledon Theatre (the following night, I was at the final performance of Half A Sixpence at the Chichester Festival Theatre: to misquote Charles Dickens, it was the worst of times, and then it was the best of times). It was also a pleasure to hear her talk about the creative process involved in bringing the role of Molly Jensen to the stage in Britain and then on Broadway.
An acoustic version of ‘Good Morning Starshine’ and ‘Aquarius’ from the musical Hair was a different take on those standards, and things rounded off with a rousing rendering of ‘Let It Go’ from the Broadway musical Frozen, a production of which will open at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in late 2020 – one hopes with her reprising her Elsa, even for a limited period. A particularly poignant moment came when she was talking about her pregnancy whilst she was playing Fantine in the 2014 Broadway production of Les Misérables. She would hear ‘Bring Him Home’ backstage – Ramin Karimloo played Jean Valjean in that production – and sing it to her yet unborn son, a rather unique interpretation of that prayer. To hear it in this concert gave it extra poignancy.
Supporting Levy was Ashley Park, known to Broadway audiences but making her London concert debut at this gig – it appeared to me she came over at least partially out of geographical convenience, taking some time out from filming something or other in Paris. Tunes from an eclectic range of sources – Carole King, Rent and Wicked were all in there – combined from some interesting anecdotes added up to a pleasant and enjoyable night out.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.