As I seem incapable of having a weekend off to sort out ‘life admin’, catch up with laundry or even just relax (because, y’know, YOLO), I ended up gracing four events with my presence, a play, a musical, a talk and a concert.
Circa, the debut play by Tom Ratcliffe, was something I first saw in June 2016, and even then, the size of the cast had been cut from eleven to seven following its premiere in January of that year in Amsterdam. This time around there have been further cutbacks with just five actors sharing eleven characters between them. Rather like Come From Away, a quick change of clothes was sometimes all that was required to differentiate between, for instance, Thomas Flynn’s ‘The Young Man’ in different settings and scenarios, a device arguably overused in this production. The set (Luke W Robson) is certainly an improvement, and overall the show feels like it has lost some running time. But in doing so it has gained a pacier and more engaging narrative.
The Drowsy Chaperone is not a show that does the rounds very often in Britain, at least partly because of its lousy title, itself a part of its concept as a show that (frankly) takes the piss out of the musical comedies that came out of the United States during the interwar period. The Man In Chair (Tim Redman) narrates as he sits in his front room, and the rest of the stage acts out the record called ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ that he plays. In the spirit of suspending one’s disbelief, one imagines being a guest of The Man at his house. The music is quite gorgeous, and it was nice to hear and see ‘Show Off’ in context (“I don’t wanna show off no more / I don’t wanna sing tunes no more / I don’t wanna ride moons no more / I don’t wanna show off”). This production was put on by the Panda Players Amateur Theatre and Concert Group, based in Chesham, a Buckinghamshire market town.
If, like me, hanging around for a drink or two and a catch-up is on the agenda, the last train on a Saturday night leaves Chesham Tube – yes Tube – station at 2357 hours, requiring a change at Moor Park for another Metropolitan line train to Wembley Park, and then the Jubilee line Night Tube service into central London, and onwards to wherever one needs to go. In the end, I took advantage of a kind offer of a lift to West Ruislip, and zipped along the Central line, just managed to meet the penultimate Wimbledon-bound District line train of the night at Notting Hill Gate, and then only had a one-minute wait for the bus at the other end: result! The show was pleasantly enjoyable, by the way, though I doubt it would fare much better if it were revived in the West End now – it notched up less than 100 performances in 2007. All those interruptions by the show’s narrator, whilst pleasantly amusing, are also more than a tad jarring, and the show just doesn’t flow very well, because it’s never allowed to. Good cast though.
I hadn’t heard of Jewish Book Week before, though there is no reason why there wouldn’t be such a thing. There was food served in Kings Place for delegates. Looking at what was on offer, it would surprise me if all of it was strictly kosher. Anyway, this talk by Adina Hoffman was about her book Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, published by Yale University Press. Naturally, anyone with an interest in Jewish history (whether actually Jewish or not) would have benefitted most from the details of the talk, but overall it was quite a fascinating insight into this screenwriter and journalist. He was also a film director, but Hoffman didn’t think he was nearly as insightful doing that job as he was as a screenwriter. Controversially, he had written in favour of guerrilla tactics against the British, which got his films boycotted in the UK for four years. “Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.” Many of his ideas and techniques are apparently still deployed in Hollywood to this day, and I shall look forward to reading the book in due course.
Sunday evening saw my first trip to West End Live Lounge – the ‘Lounge’ being very important, else the musical theatre fans will think one is talking about a free jamboree in June in Trafalgar Square. Afterwards I was told by a regular to the ‘Lounge’ (there is more than one a year) that the show had run half an hour longer than it should have done (and, indeed, a woman in the row behind insisted on pushing past everyone as soon as the house lights came up on the grounds that she had minutes to spare to catch her train from Victoria Station). The host, Samuel J Holmes, had gone into almost excruciating detail about his recent house move to Southend. I suppose it is quite forgivable – after all, the process of moving to a new house does become all-encompassing whenever it happens. Still, bringing in samples of one’s record collection to show the audience? Really?
I was also somewhat (by which I mean ‘completely’) out of my depth – while quite a few people had said it would be a good experience, what none of them had cared to warn me about was that one their only rules is ‘no musical theatre’. I knew very few of the songs, and there was little, if any, introduction to them, so as a whole the evening went over my head. Oddly enough, they had opened with ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, which, last time I checked, is from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Strictly speaking, there are quite a few songs (beside showtune standards) that are technically banned from the Lounge, including songs from Take That (The Band), The Beatles (Let It Be), Cher (The Cher Show), Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell The Musical), The Kinks (Sunny Afternoon), any of the dozens of songs that feature in Motown the Musical, and any of the songs in the Max Martin chart music back catalogue that are to feature in & Juliet.
Both Christina Bennington and Emma Hatton (the former perhaps most famous for Bat Out of Hell the Musical on both sides of the Atlantic, the latter having played Eva Peron in Evita at the Phoenix in 2017 and Elphaba in Wicked before that) seemed visibly put off by the sheer number of mobile phones out with audience members filming performances. Mr Holmes, too, called someone out who took to their phone during one of his spiels. Some people just haven’t got a clue.
Anyway, one or two people wanted the audience to sing along to their songs, but hardly anyone did, which was somewhat reassuring for me, and I can only assume I wasn’t alone in not having a sodding clue what the lyrics were. Sam Coates led a ten-piece band and – fair play to the Lounge – not a single backing track was used throughout the three-hour event. A huge ‘well done’ to the show’s producer, Shaun McCourt. The event also raised money for the Samaritans, who receive a call from someone in need of support once every six seconds. West End Live Lounge quite literally changes lives. I honestly can’t see myself going back in future, but there’s a lot to enjoy for fans of chart music, performed as it is here to a very high standard.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.