“Dada! Dada!” So yells Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) in Travesties, one of those Tom Stoppard plays that generous amounts of culture already ingrained before entering the theatre auditorium would be beneficial to understand what on earth is going on. There’s no suspending disbelief at the door here, at least not for me. “You remember Dada?” asks Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), so convincingly that at the performance I attended, a woman audibly responded, “Yes.” She must have been ancient: I know, broadly speaking, what is meant by ‘Dada’ but I’m not old enough to recall a 1910s/1920s avant-garde style of artistic expression.
Now, I’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t really get it. I’m not sure it’s meant to be ‘gotten’, as it were, it being (to me) an unwieldy stream of consciousness rather than a properly structured book. The reference to “yes I said yes I will Yes” – the last few words of the ‘novel’ (inverted commas deliberate) were instantly recognisable when they were quoted, and went completely over the heads of anyone who hasn’t read Ulysses. Similar things happened with repeated references to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Lenin and the Russian Revolution. But, as Cat Stevens once sang in ‘Father and Son’, “You’re still young, that’s your fault,” and it’s for people to get acquainted with the topics and themes in the play in order to appreciate its wit and social commentary to its fullest extent.
This goes against the grain of my fervent belief that someone can read around a play’s topics if they want to, but ultimately, ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ (that is, a reasonably intelligent person but by no means a specialist on a play’s topics) should be able to walk into a play not knowing anything about it, and come out not completely perplexed by what just took place. I am assured by people who were indeed left baffled that they still enjoyed the performance.
War, according to Tzara, “is capitalism with the gloves off”, and it’s the sort of statement that infuriates Carr – elsewhere, Tzara himself loses his rag with James Joyce (Peter McDonald) after a long and wieldy philosophical discussion. It’s here that the script becomes most entertaining, with a decent use of vocabulary rarely seen these days: most insults are lazily laced with crude swearing rather than anything meaningful or directly relevant to the conversation that led to the offended party being so incensed. Some comedy is to be enjoyed in Cecily Carruthers (Clare Foster) and her over-elaborate translation of the (apparent) Russian spoken by Lenin (Forbes Masson) and Nadya (Sarah Quist). Carruthers also engages in a sparkling vaudeville number with Gwendolen Carr (Amy Morgan).
It’s immensely clever, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was all a bit too much to handle in a single show, a near-continuous verbal assault on the senses. It almost made me want to join Tzara in yelling “Dada! Dada!” at the top of my lungs. Nonetheless, it’s engrossing and it’s humorous, and worth the intellectual challenge.
I wasn’t originally going to say anything about this event, just go along and enjoy it for what it is. But then I wasn’t expecting this particular experience to be so good, and it was an opportunity, too, to sample the theatre in the Hippodrome Casino, which I had never been in before: I love the Heliot Steak House in the casino (and don’t go often enough, mostly because my schedule doesn’t allow for it). I don’t care much for the floor upon floor of wheel-spinning in the main house, and if I had known steak and chips were on the cards even in the theatre (the table next to me plumped for burgers and fries) I might have chomped down on some sirloin where I was, right in front of the stage.
The many songs performed in this concert, under the banner of ‘Overture’, also included some other compositions from Daniel and Laura Curtis, musical theatre composers who, judging from this selection of their material, veer, as so much of contemporary British musical theatre tends to do, towards the reflective and even melancholy rather than the upbeat and exuberant. It was, to be fair, later explained to me that there were some last-minute changes due to cast illness and absences due to work commitments elsewhere. Still, an afternoon of mostly power ballads left me rather emotionally wrecked, and had there been more context to the songs, the afternoon may have been even more poignant than it was.
To be blunt, I simply couldn’t keep up with who was in love with whom and why, or who had let whom down, or if they really had let someone down or if their heightened emotions led them to believe they had but actually their actions were relatively trivial and they are in no danger of being dumped after all. Only one musical number was properly explained (if my memory serves me correctly), about Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), who lost his wife and unborn child in labour in October 1800. His response was to work even harder at being a performer and bringing joy to theatre audiences.
It’s an intriguing choice for a musical, if fully developed, especially as his life does not end well, and any sort of positive musical ending can only therefore be reached by a narrative not in chronological order, or otherwise finding some way of convincingly reprising an earlier section of a Grimaldi performance in his heyday to end the show with. Or else dispensing with the final years of his life altogether. Or making it a deliberately sombre show, looking at the personal sacrifices involved, such as the physical toll Grimaldi’s energetic performances eventually took on him.
Al Steele, at the conductor’s podium, was never let down by the live musicians, and valiantly grappled with some piece of technology or other that, when it worked as it should, provided additional recorded orchestrations. I’d have given up and just gone with the small band alone – less sometimes really is more – but Steele kept smiling, kept on enjoying himself, kept on keeping on – and in the end, in the heat of the moment, in the glory of live theatre, triumph over adversity is always uplifting to see.
There wasn’t, honestly, anything in the proceedings that I didn’t like. The best was kept for last, though, in a borderline tubthumping number from Emmanuel Kojo, followed by a majestically rousing closer, sung with passion by Tyrone Huntley. It was just the one performer, whose name I don’t recall (I wasn’t taking notes, and there was no list of musical numbers available), who kindly said ‘Hello’, pointing out that everybody else had simply launched into their song(s) without so much as an acknowledgement than an audience was even present.
But these are, at the end of the day, good tunes, and a fully fledged production of at least one of these musical ideas would, at some point, be greatly appreciated.
I’m not sure, having seen a concert version staged by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, why Honeymoon in Vegas The Musical lasted only just over four months on Broadway. Perhaps New York audiences were judging a musical by its title, as London audiences may have done with a short-lived musical that played in the same venue as this LMTO concert, the London Palladium, called I Can’t Sing! It wasn’t the so-called ‘Hamilton Effect’, as Hamilton didn’t open on Broadway until after Honeymoon in Vegas closed. Hamilton was playing off-Broadway after Honeymoon in Vegas had opened, which may have technically had an influence, but I think this is unlikely. The ‘Hamilton Effect’, for the uninitiated, is to do with people willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money getting tickets for Hamilton, even up to a year in advance, and thus have little or no remaining disposable income to spend on other shows, so box office revenue elsewhere is depleted, and those other shows are forced to close.
I suspect, in the end, it was just a case of a perfectly decent show that just didn’t pull in enough punters to last a full year on Broadway – it wasn’t the first musical to fall into this category, and it won’t be the last. The score had to have additional orchestrations put in for this one-off concert, as there aren’t any shows in recent years on either the Great White Way or the West End that have boasted 30 musicians, as the LMTO does, which says something about a) commercial considerations these days and b) how important it is that the LMTO continues its good work in giving a fuller orchestral treatment to musical theatre compositions that would otherwise not be heard quite so grandly and so beautifully.
As ever (this being the third of such events I have had the delightful privilege of attending), the LMTO’s founder and principal conductor, Freddie Tapner, opened proceedings with a spiel about letting the music speak for itself – this is a concert, not a staged production, and so some imagination would be required from the audience to imagine, for instance, a skydiving scene. I began with a discussion of the title, Honeymoon in Vegas. It sounds cheap and tacky, an event rushed through and ill-considered. But this musical is the polar opposite of all that.
Jack Singer (Arthur Darvill) is no Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, and losing money by being over-confident while gambling at a casino in Las Vegas lands him in big trouble. There’s no equivalent of Gyp in Jersey Boys to approach, so Jack is at the beck and call of his creditor, Tommy Korman (Maxwell Caulfield). But, as the title of one of the musical numbers suggests, they “Come To An Agreement”, and from here, the narrative unravels as a web of lies and half-truths come out with various but often hilarious consequences (from the audience’s perspective, at least) for the characters involved.
Darvill is sublime in the lead role, portraying various emotions effortlessly, from the terror experienced having never skydived before to the joy and exhilaration not only of accomplishing a textbook landing (staged, despite a complete lack of set and props apart from a chair – pure West End meets Edinburgh Fringe Festival – to cheering and applause) but of marrying his beloved Betsy Nolan (Samantha Barks). In a smaller space perhaps his mannerisms may have been overkill. In the large London Palladium it’s just perfect.
Barks has a lovely vocal well-suited to her role, as does Rosemary Ashe, the latter putting in a small but show-stealing role as Jack’s mother, one of those old dears who speaks their mind so forthrightly one cannot help but be bemused by her. Dramaturgically speaking, the character development is lazy: here comes yet another older person in a musical who holds resolutely outmoded and narrow-minded principles, but in the end capitulates to help ensure a happy, happy ending. Had Betsy’s own parents had bit parts themselves in this musical and held similar views to Bea Singer, one could almost envisage Jack plucking up the courage to declare, a la Dirty Dancing: “No one puts Betsy in a corner.”
Jason Robert Brown, the musical’s composer and lyricist, accepted an invitation from the LMTO’s producers, Stuart Matthew Price and James Yeoburn, to conduct his own show. Well received by an expectant audience clearly familiar with his back catalogue, a cool and composed demeanour contrasted with the joyous nature of the show, whilst allowing the performers and orchestra members the maximum possible limelight. As part of the show is set in Hawaii, Brown even had a turn on the banjo (according to the liner notes of the Broadway cast recording, it’s a banjo: here, it seemed to me more like a ukulele).
And the laughs kept coming. Simon Lipkin, doubling up as Buddy Rocky and Roy Brown, the former a casino host and singer, the latter the leader of a troupe of Elvis Presley impersonators, commanded the stage with likeable confidence. Mahi (Maisey Bawden) brought the house down with a musical number called ‘Friki-Friki’, milked for all it was worth to the point where a concert stand toppled over. What happened after is best summarised by the oft-repeated joke (well, oft-repeated in the theatre industry, at least), “How many stagehands does it take to change a lightb- well, thank you!”
I mean, it’s hardly progressive, and a feminist critique of the plotline will no doubt identify some pertinent issues that a modern musical perhaps should have done better to address. At times the music, particularly performed by an orchestra dressed in suits, comes across as a tribute to the Rat Pack, or at least the big band sound of a previous generation. The witty lyrics showcase Jason Robert Brown’s literary skill brilliantly, and this charming and celebratory show left me with a smile on my face, even on the Monday morning after the Sunday night before.
At a time of perceived unprecedented uncertainty, for good for or ill, particularly in the corridors of political power in both London and Washington, it is almost inevitable that anyone who has an open platform to a receptive audience would seek to address the subjects of President Trump’s administration and Brexit. In doing so whilst restraining himself from an angry rant that would only make him sound like a president he clearly dislikes, Russell Howard has come of age. Perhaps this Round The World tour, unimaginatively if fairly accurately titled, isn’t as hilarious as his previous Wonderbox tour. But this is a richer, deeper and more worthwhile experience. Russell is older and wiser, though the toilet humour remains, as does much talk about dicks and willies.
I caught Russell’s gig on the sixth of ten ‘in-the-round’ shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall. No performer has ever performed ten days in a row before now in that most Victorian of venues. After a pleasant brief support act from Steve Hall, who has worked with Howard on the Russell Howard’s Good News BBC television series, the Albert Hall crowd settled down to a somewhat unfocused set in which Howard’s family were heavily featured. There must be at least some degree of embellishment going on: surely in this day and age there would be footage of some of the more bizarre statements and happenings from Team Howard, especially if one of them (Howard himself) is a known public figure.
But then this isn’t Good News, so why give paying audiences video clip after video clip, thus leaving them with the impression that they may as well have stayed at home and turned on the telly? Howard, for all his bouncing around and gradually ever-increasing absurdity on stage, likes to portray himself as one of the less zany characters in his clan, the others – his sister Kerry, a television and film actress (and married to theatre actor Gabriel Vick), his autistic brother, his parents and grandparents – apparently provide much fodder for his stand-up tours of this nature.
There was, I felt, a slight danger that Howard was sermonising in his – admittedly convincing and entirely feasible – line of argument that laughter is the best way to respond to everything that’s going on in the world. Mind you, I recall seeing the late singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen in the same Royal Albert Hall in 2008, who told his audience that with the world being what it is (an international economic crisis was tightening its grip at that time) it is an extraordinary thing that people can come together and enjoy an evening’s entertainment. Almost nine years later, and in a very different environment of intense lunacy than Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ song, such words ring true all the more.
Some of the observational comedy felt a tad dry. One was about letting Darwinism run its course by getting rid of ‘Mind The Gap’ announcements on the London Underground, and banning irritating talking lorries (“This vehicle is turning left”). But surely, in the former case, it would appear Howard has never had to go through the frustration of disrupted Tube services because someone has fallen through ‘the gap’. In the latter case, such announcements clearly benefit the blind and partially sighted.
Still, Howard’s storytelling ability is top notch; even when he digressed it was easy enough to follow his train of thought. His live-in girlfriend is a medical doctor, and thus he is highly sympathetic to the problems and challenges facing frontline NHS staff. His observations on musical theatre had me in stitches, even if musicals are his poison and my pleasure. A spoonful of sugar, he mused, won’t help the medicine go down if you’re diabetic. And I found himself in agreement with Russell Howard when he spoke of a dream in which the Prime Minister of the day wouldn’t treat the country so much as a business that needs to be run, with diatribes about the state of the economy, but as a group of citizens – human beings – with wants, desires and emotions, and above all, a need to laugh.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.