A fellow theatregoer called out what he believed was a false accent on the part of Cherry Jones as Amanda, the matriarch in The Glass Menagerie, and while it is an accent rarely heard in today’s America, it is one I’ve come across before, so I do not share my acquaintance’s dismissal of it. Like many productions of this play, this particular one, first performed (so the programme says) at the American Repertory Theater [sic] in February 2013, dispenses with the projections and backdrops stipulated by Tennessee Williams in his script. They would not, I don’t think, have added much, if anything, and are best left for discussion in essays and exams for students reading the play for academic purposes.
Perhaps this is the intention, but I didn’t feel much empathy for any of the characters by the end of the evening, except perhaps for Jim O’Connor (Brian J. Smith), who is brought to the Wingfield household as a potential suitor for Laura (Kate O’Flynn) by Laura’s brother and Amanda’s son Tom (Michael Esper). Tom is such a dreamer in his own little world – as is Laura in hers – that he’s not briefed Jim properly on why a ‘gentleman caller’ is wanted by Amanda to drop in on Laura. The consequences are both disastrous and darkly amusing.
That this is a memory play, with Tom doubling up as narrator, places the play in the position of being as flawed as his memory is – and, more to the point, as biased as his trains of thought are. Fortunately or unfortunately, the audience is explicitly informed that what it is about to see may not be exactly what happened, a point that shattered the whole play for me before anything took place, and I always had a lingering in the back of my mind that what I’m seeing in front of me might actually (aside from this being a fictional play in any event) be complete hogwash.
The performances from all four actors are, however, outstanding. Jones’ Amanda is, if Tom’s perception is to be believed, a mixture of dreamy and practical, veering from fantasy aspirations for Laura to down-to-earth jibes at Tom for not being realistic about his present, let alone his future. Here, as in many of Tennessee Williams’ plays, the truth would have been better, even if it hurts: Laura, a bit like Nina in In The Heights, dropped out of her course some months before her mother found out. It wasn’t the dropping out, it was the withholding of vital information. A fragile disposition is no excuse.
The staging, frankly, could be better. The dinner table, where a fair amount of dialogue takes place, is on the extreme stage right, so that certain members of the audience sat on one end of the rows have partially or even totally obscured views, and patrons sat on the other end must crane their necks right across. Meanwhile, the centre of the stage is empty! Was the staging a metaphor for the production as a whole: vacant and strenuous to watch?
It may be funny for those who can stomach isolated punchlines delivered out of character, with sudden verve and confidence from women who understandably have doubts about posing ‘nude’ for a charity calendar, who just as suddenly retreat, joke delivered, back into a state of option-weighing and uncertainty. And it is ‘nude’, apparently, and not ‘naked’, though quite what the writers of The Girls (why The Girls? Why not Calendar Girls The Musical?) consider the difference between the two I have yet to work out.
I saw the play Calendar Girls back in October 2010, and from what I recall of it, it was such an inspiring evening, delivered with grace and gravitas. This musical is crass by comparison, and distinctly underwhelming. They might as well have had a group of lads singing, to the hymn tune ‘Cwm Rhondda’, “Get your tits out! Get your tits out! Get your tits out for the lads – for the lads! Get – your tits out – for – the – lads!” Which they sort of do, but it’s hardly titillating (sorry); it’s more like the sort of playground humour that even the schoolchildren in the musical – Danny (Ben Hunter), Jenny (Chloe May Jackson) and Tommo (Josh Benson) – have outgrown. The words of Stewie Griffin in an episode of Family Guy come to mind, in reference to a particularly dim guest character: “It’s like she’s fucking five!” If ‘she’ were The Girls, that’s an apt description indeed.
Perhaps I doth protest too much, but frankly if a production is to expose (pun acknowledged but not intended – he says) people on stage, it should do so properly. That is to say, ‘nude’ should mean ‘nude’. If a nude calendar is to be sold to the public, then that’s what it should be. Not with flower arrangements or an oversized Christmas cracker strategically placed, but simply nude. If what I’m saying goes against the grain of what actually happened in the 1999 charity calendar, in which certain parts of the human anatomy were concealed, then the show shouldn’t make such a fuss about it being a ‘nude’ calendar!
It’s hardly a new thing in theatre – it’s been around as far back as the day after theatre censorship ended in 1968, when Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre. More recently London audiences saw it at the Noel Coward Theatre in a short-lived but excellent musical adaptation of Mrs Henderson Presents, and there again, no clothes meant no clothes. Here, Jessie (Michele Dotrice) insists, “No front bottoms!” Do it, or don’t do it – there shouldn’t have been rear bottoms for that character either (as far as I remember, there wasn’t).
The first half is a hard slog, with the company whining within the first few minutes about having to live through ‘another year in Yorkshire’, as though Yorkshire were akin to Hell. My recent experience visiting Sheffield for the day (well, a half-day really) to see a show there doesn’t tally with Yorkshire being so terrible, but even if it were a place to be endured rather than a place to thrive in, the prevailing attitude towards Yorkshire in this show is completely incongruent from that of anyone who truly has Yorkshire in their blood. Yorkshire people love Yorkshire. The apparent Yorkshire people in The Girls must be the only ones in human history who don’t. They had Yorkshire accents, for sure, but hardly spoke the way people in Yorkshire do: perhaps if they did, the show might have been called T’ Girls.
There are just thirteen musical numbers – in comparison, Mamma Mia! has 24, and Wicked has 29. The second half isn’t quite so bad as the first, but it doesn’t deliver enough to make the show overall a worthwhile experience. If you want to see a decently done and slick finale with a photographer, Half A Sixpence does it well in ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’. The one in The Girls is too long and isn’t even a song. Some people’s heart-strings may have been tugged. I just longed to get out of there and descend into the London Underground and on my way home.
How ironic that a show that attempts to portray its characters as unconventional is itself so conventional that it’s frankly dull. Unlike the play, which very clearly brought to the audience’s attention how much money has been raised for leukaemia research, the musical is ashamed and embarrassed to say anything about it, even at curtain call, settling instead for a grudging recognition at the end of a long article in the show’s programme. That alone is good enough reason for me not to return to this frustratingly dreary show that could have been so much brighter and motivational. Avoid.
It was a performance I nearly decided not to go to. At the time of booking, the ‘late night’ performance Whoopi Goldberg was to give at the London Palladium was to start at 11pm. As I already had a long-standing booking to see what would have been the last night of Half A Sixpence in the West End (it has since been extended to April, then to May, then to September), the timings seemed perfect: 10.15pm finish for that show, then a dash across from Leicester Square to Oxford Circus (or St Martin’s Lane to Argyll Street for the pedantic). Then, a day before the performance, I was in receipt of an email saying that the start time for Goldberg’s show had been brought forward to 10.30pm.
A combination of factors led to me seeing the whole thing (woe betide anyone who walks into a comedy show late, though on this occasion a woman on her mobile phone riled Goldberg instead, and she (Goldberg) didn’t bat an eyelid about a few latecomers – but even so). At Half A Sixpence, their leading man, Charlie Stemp, was indisposed, for reasons I never did discover – and I’m quite sure if it was anything major to be concerned about we’d have heard about it one way or another. The salient point here is that Sam O’Rourke, performing the leading role in Stemp’s place, rattled through the show at an even faster pace than his colleague, such that the curtain fell five minutes earlier than it ordinarily would.
When I left the theatre, I had to battle through the crowds (other theatres had also let out around this time) to get to Charing Cross and on to the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus. And who exits at Oxford Circus at 10.25pm? Plain sailing getting out of the station and through the Palladium doors. I even had time for a pee, and was comfortably seated before anything happened. This, as some of my religiously minded acquaintances would say, is God’s will. I suspect what really happened is that someone connected with the production saw complaints from me and others on social media that we would very likely not be on time, and held the start time back accordingly.
Speaking of social media, a lot of the topics discussed derived from questions Goldberg (or, more precisely, Goldberg’s team) had invited the public to ask. The questions were, as one would expect, very broad in nature, and included ones from her fans about previous television series that people like me who haven’t followed Goldberg’s career obsessively didn’t have a clue about, and one asking when she will run for President of the United States. Short answer: Never. The longer answer is that she’s an entertainer, not a politician, and whatever a particular administration does will please some people and piss others off.
Toilet humour was much in evidence – metaphorically speaking, I hasten to add, with details about how bodily functions (or dysfunctions) affect daily life more and more the older a person becomes. I loved a later story about her grandson. When he was a little boy, he was heard to have said, “Fuck it!” very loudly at a public occasion. The boy’s mother, Whoopi’s daughter, wanted to know where he picked up such atrocious language from. “What did he say?” Whoopi asked as her flesh and blood yelled down the phone. “You know what he said!” came the reply. “No I don’t, I wasn’t there.” “He said, ‘Fuck it!’” “I can’t hear you?!” “I said he said ‘Fuck it!’” “What?” “Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it! FUCK IT! Now where did he get that from?” “I don’t know, it must have been you. You just said it four times.”
It was, in the end, an hour and a half of belly laughs about almost anything under the sun. In an age of technological wizardry and video graphics, it’s good old fashioned storytelling that had us in stitches. A tad overpriced, this was nonetheless an experience that will not be soon forgotten.
A twenty-first century musical for a twenty-first century audience, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has a sort of chart music feel that I haven’t experienced in a theatre since attending the first public preview performance of the London production of Kinky Boots – and there, too, was a drag queen putting on ridiculously high heels, making somebody already tall even taller: as Jamie New (John McCrea) tries on bright red stilettos for the first time, I could just picture Matt Henry’s Lola from Kinky Boots declaring: “It has to be… RED!”
Despite the show’s title, it isn’t all about young Jamie, a schoolboy who wishes to pursue a career as a performer, and makes plans to turn up to the school prom (an American import to British shores) in a frock. Other characters get solo numbers, notably his mum Margaret (Josie Walker), and Jamie’s best school friend, Pritti Pasha (Lucie Shorthouse). The former’s Act Two number, ‘He’s My Boy’, brought the house down in its poignancy, while the latter’s ‘It Means Beautiful’ demonstrates a palpable alliance between her and Jamie – one suspects they’ll keep in touch despite their contrasting career goals.
Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll) tries to invoke the school’s uniform policy with regard to the prom, but Jamie has, as it were, done his homework: it is not expressly forbidden for a boy to wear a dress to an event held on school premises outside usual school hours. Complaints are later received from parents of other students who have deemed Jamie’s plans “disgusting”. The word sounds so much punchier and impactful to my London ears when spoken in a Yorkshire accent.
It’s a show set in Sheffield playing to a (predominantly) Sheffield audience, allowing the dialogue to be peppered with local references – a punchline about the city’s Supertram system preventing Hugo Battersby (Charles Dale) from being where he needed to be on time provoked sustained applause at the performance I attended. Other landmarks and streets with a certain reputation were also appreciated (or scoffed at). The choreography (Kate Prince) is strong and vibrant when it needs to be, and I’m grateful this is a musical that contains both showstoppers and more reflective musical numbers.
The sound levels too, are perfect. There aren’t huge belter songs of the sort one might find in Wicked or Gypsy; I liked not getting the hair dryer treatment and yet still being so moved and impacted by this production. The audience reactions were, I think, indicative that this is beyond being simply a well-constructed show with high production values and a hugely talented cast. There’s audible gasping, there’s collective audible gasping, and then there’s a cacophony of gasping, muttering, tutting and what I call outraged laughter, all because X said something about Y, in a show. But then this show is that engaging.
McCrea in the lead role has a charm and warmth that endears the audience to Jamie. “Homework is so boring, I’d even prefer watching snooker,” he muses, the Crucible being the host venue of the annual World Snooker tournament. This being (at the time of writing, anyway) 2017, not everyone is against this gay student who wants to be a drag queen, and all of his classmates, bar school bully Dean Paxton (a very convincing Luke Baker) are either supportive or otherwise indifferent. Some might be disappointed that the level of triumph over adversity isn’t as high as it could have been. Ultimately though, the plot, although thin, is credible. It’s wonderful, though, to have a gay man’s story that is truly celebratory. Oh, mistakes are made, and there is some humble pie to be eaten – to quote the title of a previous BBC Television series, life isn’t all ‘ha ha, hee hee’.
The scene changes were slick, if fairly low-budget, with a decent amount of pushing and pulling done by both cast members and stagehands. Both hilarious and poignant in equal measure, this glorious production very much deserves a London transfer.
In the end, I never figured out why this play has its title, The Boys in the Band. It’s essentially about what it means to be a homosexual man in 1960s America, back when it was most unacceptable and distinctly un-Christian (not ‘anti’, interestingly, but ‘un’) in mainstream society to be a ‘faggot’. It still seems to be a major point of contention, despite decades of pressure, campaigning and ‘Pride’ events – by the time I got around to seeing this Park Theatre production, getting a brief West End run in the Vaudeville Theatre, another show, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, had its press night at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. That musical, based on a true story in modern Britain, demonstrates the issues likely to still be experienced by anybody who isn’t ‘straight’, and while The Boys in the Band certainly has dated elements, overall, it still has much to say about accepting people for who they are, quirks and all.
The thing about The Boys in the Band is that there have been so many plays and musicals that have followed it, such that I couldn’t help but feel that I’ve seen the events that transpire in it elsewhere, and done with more severity and impact. It’s a bit like seeing horror movies over a period of some years, then finally seeing Psycho, only to find that by modern standards that film is relatively tame. But both The Boys in the Band and Psycho retain some degree of shockability. Certain punchlines in the play still elicit audible gasps from the audience, though these days it isn’t what was said so much as why a particular character felt it necessary to say it in the first place.
To return to the point I started with, there are no boys, and there is no band, nor is there mention of either. Boys? Oh no. Though these are a bunch of grown men, their collective lifestyles are best described in a line from the show a few doors down from the Vaudeville, at the Adelphi Theatre, Kinky Boots: “Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds.” Alan (John Hopkins) tells the host of this gathering, Michael (Ian Hallard), that the only one he dislikes out of the group is Emory (James Holmes). I quite agree: Emory as a character is simply too hammed up to be entirely convincing, and I wondered whether Emory’s overly charismatic nature (to the point of annoyance) was masking some deep secret of some description or other. It’s not great when one is very much aware that one is watching a play, unable to lose oneself in the dynamics of it all.
It’s Harold (Mark Gatiss) who largely gets the best and pithiest lines, and the sarcasm and facetiousness gradually rise to a crescendo, rather predictably. “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” the play preaches. While there has been some evidence that attitudes within organised religions have led to suicides amongst LGBT worshippers, statements like those are no longer universally true. Most of the characters are more like caricatures, stereotypical in nature, almost as though the production is taking the piss out of gay people. It would be very surprising if this were the intention. But it did make me wonder what exactly much of the audience was chortling away at, and why. Great acting though from an excellent cast.
Photo credit: Darren Bell
I’d heard a lot of good things about Newsies The Musical, a Disney Theatrical Productions show – their Aladdin and The Lion King are currently playing in the West End. Having finally seen Newsies, albeit in cinematic form, it’s a surprise that this is being billed as the final opportunity to see it, supposedly forever. It certainly deserves a London run – the number of newspapers still in evidence on the streets of central London on any given weekday is an indication of how Londoners still like their newspapers – and the production values in Newsies are more than high enough to satisfy the standards West End audiences have come to expect from a modern musical.
I am reliably informed that the 1992 motion picture of the same name wasn’t a commercial success, simply because it wasn’t very good at all. This stage show adaptation is, irrespective of the movie, an absolute smash hit: I have never before sat in a cinema and been blown away (in a good way) as much by what I’d just seen. Move aside, La La Land – Newsies is, to quote Tina Turner, ‘simply the best’ musical cinematic experience since the twenty-fifth anniversary concert of The Phantom of the Opera was beamed from the Royal Albert Hall to cinemas across the country in 2011.
There may, I appreciate, particularly for those who haven’t been to a cinema to see a stage show before, be doubts about whether the shooting of a live stage experience would work. Here, the camera crew has done an absolutely splendid job – and I very much felt like I was watching an ‘as is’ theatre show. There’s even a (presumably inadvertent) shot of someone in the audience getting up mid-performance. But there are close-ups were appropriate, and there are more panoramic views for the big ensemble numbers.
The choreography (Christopher Gattelli) is frankly astounding. You may be aware of the mesmerising performance Charlie Stemp brings to the current London production of Half A Sixpence: imagine a whole group of young men (playing paper boys, of course) going for it with tap dancing, jumping and backflipping – and more – at that sort of standard. That’s what Newsies is like. This is a very American audience watching a very American show – the reaction to the Act One showstopper ‘Seize The Day’ didn’t seem all that overblown for me, and I’m sure I would have risen to my feet if I was there at the vast 2,703-seater Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and not in a cosy cinema. It’s one of their stories, based on true events, a reiteration of the American Dream, where even school-age boys can rally together and influence change for the better.
Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) has a lot to deal with, what with strike action against the newsies’ belligerent employer Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), combined with the difficulties of getting the word out across New York City given that there’s, um, a newsies strike going on. This being Disney, there’s a love story to contend with too, with reporter Katherine (a rather feisty and likeably confident Kara Lindsay) charming her way into Jack’s life, even if it’s originally purely for journalistic reasons. Various newsies are in various states of mind as to the best way to proceed, or even to proceed, and it’s a fascinating story with marvellous character development.
It’s a fast-paced show, insofar as the full Broadway-length musical was over all too soon, even with an ‘intermission’. There’s not a weak link in this cast, though the stand-outs for me were Aisha De Haas as Medda Larkin, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Crutchie, probably not the character’s ‘real’ name but so-called for not very imaginative reasons. The former is a bold and sassy lady, the sort of inspiration so beloved and so inspirational to the boys. The latter is the epitome of triumph over adversity; his musical number ‘Letter from the Refuge’ (as I understand it, added for the US National Tour, and thus not on the Broadway Cast Recording) was on a par with ‘The Letter’ from Billy Elliot the Musical for heartfelt expression.
Entertaining, exuberant, energetic and enthusiastic, this is not just another Disney fairy tale. There’s considerable depth to this astonishing achievement.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.