Mister Rogers, as Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was known, thanks to his children’s programme Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, didn’t have much of a following in the UK, simply because his show wasn’t aired here. But there’s something of the old ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ tone in his voice, and seeing Tom Hanks’ take on the man in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, the nearest equivalent that came to mind was Blue Peter. But Rogers was too polished a man to have an elephant in the studio, let alone one emptying its bowels on air (for example), and he wasn’t the kind of man – as far as this movie is concerned, anyway – to go out and climb tall buildings or other outdoor exploits.
The whole film is essentially based on an article in the November 1998 issue of Esquire magazine, written by Tom Junod, called ‘Can You Say… Hero?’ The article itself is spot on in its description of Rogers’ voice – “that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults”. A journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned by the editor of Esquire, Ellen (Christine Lahti), to interview Rogers for a 400-word article to be part of a larger feature on heroes. Because of his reputation as one of those rigorous investigative reporters who leaves no stone unturned, none of the other ‘heroes’ on Ellen’s hit list wanted to be interviewed by him.
Sure enough, Vogel attempts to uncover Rogers as someone who is quite different away from the television studio. This could even be a kind of Christmas story – the ‘Scrooge’ who is exposed to Rogers’ world, both on and off-camera, and finds himself reconciling with his family and altering his aloof and hard-nosed ways. And like Scrooge, Vogel has his reasons for not being very engaging, even when his father (Chris Cooper) actively wants to patch things up.
It is Vogel who initially reaches out to Rogers, and such is his level of interest in him that he even sets off to see Rogers yet again despite a family emergency, much to the chagrin of his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). Rogers does not appear to directly address Vogel’s warped priorities (perhaps he did not feel it would achieve anything positive), but instead asks him to think, during one minute of silence, about those who love him.
The cinematography is good, doing well to portray the picture quality (or relative lack thereof) in the days before high definition – the scenes with Mister Rogers in the studio coming across as though being played on a VHS player of old. The narrative is intriguing, and while there is some inevitable sweetness involved in the making of a children’s television series, as well as in the interactions Rogers has with people, it’s never overkill. Not even when an entire New York City subway carriage starts singing his theme tune back to him – children and adults alike.
Whatever one’s age or station in life, there is a considerable amount to think about in a film that talks about the need for tolerance, forbearance, love and forgiveness. I know I’m not the kindest of people (even if I could sort of justify that by saying that reviewers must be truthful about what they see and consequently write about) but, room for improvement being the largest in the world, there’s always scope to be that little bit more compassionate. A thoughtful movie about a remarkable man.
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.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.