Regular readers are probably tired by now of me saying that it should be possible to walk into a show, and not know anything about it, and come out with at least a general understanding of the proceedings in that production. But that’s exactly what happened the first time I came up to South Yorkshire to see a show in Sheffield that was made in Sheffield, and what a West End success Everybody’s Talking About Jamie turned out to be. I don’t think Standing At The Sky’s Edge could necessarily replicate that kind of commercial success – for one thing, it’s more reflective than celebratory (though not entirely without hope), and if I’m brutally honest, it’s one of those shows that takes a while to get going.
It’s a play with songs, rather than a book musical, and while the songs emphasise certain aspects of this intergenerational storyline, it’s as if the plot freezes so the audience can enjoy some music. Richard Hawley’s tunes, though sometimes quite lyrically dense, can also be too repetitive – too often the last line of a song is sung over and over again. I understand the need for dramatic emphasis, but it’s overdone to the point where it starts to lose its intended impact. Will Stuart leads a seven-piece band through a mixed range of tunes, featuring anything from a soloist to the full adult cast of fourteen plus the Sheffield People’s Theatre, another fourteen voices. SPT as a whole is larger than this, encompassing all sorts of theatre functions, both on and off-stage.
The show is essentially about the inhabitants of Park Hill, a council housing estate very close to Sheffield railway station, and thus within reasonable distance of the Crucible Theatre itself. Park Hill predates the Crucible by a decade, the former being opened in 1961 by Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963), the then Leader of the Opposition. I wasn’t initially keen at all on this production during its first three scenes, set in 1960, 1989 and 2016, with characters introduced quite fleetingly. Oh joy! Another one of those shows made unnecessarily complicated by flitting between generations because it’s currently fashionable to disregard linear, chronological storytelling.
Visible on stage for this production as soon as members of the audience file in is a sign reading “I love you will u marry me”, recognisable to locals as a handwritten plea that was never painted over once it appeared at some point in 2001. A decade later, it became a neon sign on the estate. The actual story behind that unconventional proposal isn’t covered here: while the characters in the play are all fictional, their stories are both recognisable and convincing. So many plays are still entirely about the upper and middle classes, or otherwise there are working class characters that are, at best, like Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence: very pleasant but also rather dim. Not here: this reflects the working classes at their most raw and most honest.
Grace (Deborah Tracey) and her niece Joy (Faith Omole) are spoken down to, as if their command of English is deficient, the former by a Housing Officer (Louis Gaunt) who introduces them to their new home and its miscellaneous mod-cons, the latter by Jimmy (Adam Hugill), who fends off Joy from a couple of local bullies. Poppy (Alex Young) also moves into the area, having bought a place (or what she cals a “split-level duplex”) at Park Hill. I do hope the Sheffield locals don’t think all Londoners are like her, ordering from Ocado (something I have never, ever done) and being generally rather pretentious.
Nikki (Maimuna Memon) and Adam Hugill (Jimmy) were the stand-outs for me, putting in stunning performances in solo musical numbers (Nikki’s ‘Open Up Your Door’ being particularly memorable), but there wasn’t anyone in this cast that I didn’t enjoy hearing from. A lot of topics come up: Harry (Robert Lonsdale) starts off as a young man with ambition but is later hit hard by the Thatcher reforms. The Iron Lady is loved in some quarters down south but, watching this show, it’s easy to understand why parts of the north are so staunchly anti-Conservative to this day. (No, the show doesn’t indulge in Tory-bashing.) Joy has initial trouble getting her head around Yorkshire dialect, whilst displaying a stroppy attitude that is nonetheless commensurate with being a teenager. There’s more than one same-sex relationship going on. The estate itself falls into a state of general disrepair.
The stage, too, is sometimes ridiculously busy. Being a flexible theatre space, the Crucible for this production has several entry/exit points for the cast, and some of the choreography (Lynne Page) has involves walking onto the stage from a given point and exiting from another. In the most dramatic scene, in the closing moments, the reasoning behind having so much activity couldn’t be clearer, but in other places, it’s too distracting and serves no narrative purpose. Like Jamie, Sky’s Edge has some punchlines in it that are best understood by Sheffield audiences (Jamie New’s “Homework is so boring, I’d rather be watching the snooker” brought the house down at the Crucible, home of the Snooker World Championship, but never raises even a titter on Shaftesbury Avenue). It’s inept in places, but goodness me, it’s so very genuine and sincere. A beautiful, haunting and heartfelt production.
At Crucible Theatre Sheffield, until 6 April 2019.
to I’ve resisted saying anything until now about Vision of You, the exploration and exposition of the backstories of the characters of Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) from Bat Out of Hell The Musical. There are three reasons. The first is that I thought I had said all I wished to say about BOOH – as it is known to its fans – already. The second is that there are invariably others who are able to write with so much more enthusiasm and unrestrained delight with regards to discovering more about these characters. Third, audiences were asked to “keep the secrets […] for those who haven’t yet seen the show”.
It is worth, on balance and with hindsight, saying something after all. The premise is that the concerts, held in London and Manchester previously as one-act performances, provide audiences with details about how Falco and Sloane came to be where they were as characters during the timespan of BOOH. The Peterborough concert was held at the Key Theatre, a venue operated by Vivacity, a not-for-profit company that manages many other facilities as well, including swimming pools, gyms, art galleries, libraries and the Peterborough Museum, for and on behalf of Peterborough City Council.
Why Peterborough? It’s where Rob Fowler first performed, as part of the Key Youth Theatre (KYT), now operated by Kindred Drama. Their alumni also include Matt Nalton, who was part of the West End cast of Jersey Boys, and Robert Gilbert, who has been in a number of productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Seven minutes is probably not that long for what Sexton and Fowler referred to as die-hard fans, many of whom have listened to Meat Loaf renderings of Jim Steinman’s songs that go on for even longer, but it’s a big ask of KYT’s current members to take on the opening musical number from BOOH, ‘All Revved Up With No Place To Go’ with a section from ‘Everything Louder Than Everything Else’ in the middle of it. Just as well that they smashed it.
At the interval, what I initially recognised as the familiar sound of hoovering, because the sheer amount of confetti that used to fall at the end of the first half of BOOH meant stagehands would use vacuums to help get rid of it, was actually the noise of automatic hand dryers in the conveniences. The use of a band (as opposed to just Steve Corley at the piano as per the earlier concerts) allowed for a greater variation of numbers, including renderings from BOOH numbers ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and ‘For Crying Out Loud’ from Strat (Simon Gordon) and Raven (Georgia Carling). The song most closely associated with Falco and Sloane (apart from ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’, which wasn’t reprised, fortunately or unfortunately), ‘What Part of My Body Hurts The Most?’ was as emotionally charged and impassioned as ever.
At the risk of he who doth protest too much, there were the usual hiccups that tend to go with one-off events – the odd line wasn’t quite picked up by the microphones, and a videotape was played prematurely. Early in the second half, with much of the narrative of the ‘original’ one-act Vision of You complete, the performance seemed to stop being a backstory that needed to be told and became more celebratory than revelatory. ‘The Show Must Go On’ from We Will Rock You and a tweaked rendering of ‘What You Own’ from Rent were amongst the highlights (for me, anyway), as was the infinitely mellower ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’. All things considered, a great night (especially considering the box office prices patrons paid) and a memorable live experience. Perhaps there might be someone from the current Key Youth Theatre company that might end up on a West End stage too one of these days.
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.