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.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.