The Old Vic used to send me updates on their productions, adding that they noticed I hadn’t booked to see anything there for a while. But it’s been so long since I have even accepted an invitation to review there. Kevin Spacey was artistic director there for a decade, though that wasn’t why I haven’t been – he had stepped down a couple of years before miscellaneous assertions of abusive behaviour became public knowledge. It’s partly because I’m usually already down to review elsewhere on the same night as an Old Vic press night as and when the invitation lands, and partly because I never book to see anything there these days as their ticket prices to sit anywhere half-decent (by my standards) are not worth paying. For the record, the last thing I saw prior to this production of All My Sons was Art, in December 2016.
It is probably true that they receive no public funding whatsoever, which explains why it is so heavily slanted towards sponsorship from private enterprise – their sponsors include American Express, the law firm Pinsent Masons, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the Canary Wharf Group, PwC and Royal Bank of Canada. Fair play to them for whatever it is the Old Vic does, but I have not felt inclined to darken their door with my presence in recent years. For instance, I had a look at hypothetically booking tickets on their website for a forthcoming run of Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play. There are £12 seats upstairs, granted, but I would have to sit on a “severely restricted bench”, or for £8.50 I could stand all evening at a “listening post only”. In both cases I may as well not be there. £21 seats: “rail in eyeline” – no, thank you. Downstairs, I could sit “behind slim pillar” for £65 but for a clear view, it’s £125 before booking fee, restoration levy and whatever else, and even then, the rake in the Old Vic isn’t steep, so if there’s someone tall sat directly in front of me, it’s still (from my perspective) a restricted view in any event.
But I had an evening free. Had I left it a few hours more I may have found myself at the press night of a touring production of American Idiot The Musical, the press night invite from the New Wimbledon Theatre coming through even later than normal (it’s walking distance from my front door, but I am hardly ever review there, as I’m booked up to review other productions by the time ATG bother to send out invites). While the Old Vic itself was out of the question, the National Theatre Live broadcast appealed, and so I settled for a premium seat at the local Odeon (the local Curzon cinema, my first choice, had sold out), a 7pm start and a walk home.
It’s been a while since I’d sat through an NT Live broadcast as well! Emma Freud, who used to present the broadcasts, has now been replaced by Kirsty Wark, who I just about recalled from the days when I had time to watch Newsnight (invariably, I am writing a review when it comes on these days, or otherwise still coming back from the theatre). The broadcasts are also subtitled these days, a service I use heavily on the rare occasions when I watch television, because too many television people mumble. Either that, or I am too used to listening to actors project their voices on stage, which just comes across as unnecessary shouting on screen. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.
Anyway, it’s a very, very good production. Sally Field and Bill Pullman may seem, at face value, like ‘celebrity casting’, inasmuch as there are many British actors that could have performed their roles in the show without the Old Vic choosing to import from the United States. But Field in particular shines as Kate Keller. Colin Morgan, probably still best known for playing the title character in the BBC Television series Merlin, puts in an impassioned and engaging performance as Joe (Pullman) and Kate’s 32-year-old son Chris. At times it was exhausting to watch, and in one scene came close to melodrama, but he never overdid it.
The production is, ostensibly – and without going into details – a criticism, maybe even a refutation, of the so-called American Dream, and raises questions about what defines love for one’s family. What does it mean when a parent says they would do ‘anything’ for their offspring? What if ‘anything’ includes something morally dubious at best and a contributory factor to loss of life at worst?
In October 2018, I went to a concert called ‘The Best of the West End’ and, alongside thousands of others in the Royal Albert Hall, was aghast at remarks by Ruthie Henshall as John Owen-Jones was unable to perform as scheduled. According to Henshall, his face was swollen as a result of an adverse reaction to something he had eaten at a branch of Pret A Manger. The punchline was judged to be particularly insensitive in the light of two deaths reported on in the news at the time – completely separate cases – arising from severe allergic reactions to food purchased from Pret.
I’d missed Magic at the Musicals in 2018, opting to checkout the understudies at ‘Bat Out of Hell The Musical’ instead – the Magic Radio event pulls in a number of principals from a number of musicals, so the West End becomes Understudy Central for a night. Anyway, I found it amusing that Magic FM had, for their headline musical theatre concert in 2019, Henshall reading off an autocue, ostensibly to mitigate against embarrassing gaffes, especially as Owen-Jones was on this line-up as well.
I had a direct message on Twitter from an unknown (to me) person claiming to be a friend of Lucie Jones, wanting to know what the programme said about her. It probably goes without saying, but if she were a genuine friend of Lucie Jones, why didn’t she just get in touch with her friend Lucie Jones? Anyway, I indulged her and sent her a photo with Jones’ headshot and biography in the programme. But talk about moving an inch and being expected to run a mile: she wanted me to get my phone out during the performance and record Jones’ performance of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress. When I told her that I was sat too near the front to do so, she persisted: “can u audio?” I didn’t bother responding. Of course, I wouldn’t have filmed it even if I was in the back row of the circle. But it is extraordinary how entitled some people think they are – it is one thing to discreetly record something for one’s personal collection (though I am not inclined to defend those who do). It is quite another to expect someone else to do it on one’s behalf because one couldn’t be bothered to buy a ticket and attend.
I had no idea Lucie Jones singing one song from Waitress was causing so much ‘news’ – apparently the production’s social media channels said nothing about their show being featured in a musical theatre concert at the Royal Albert Hall (most of the other productions at least mentioned it), and with weeks to go before Katharine McPhee completes her run as Jenna Hunterson in Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, the rumour mill went into overdrive with the news that Jones was singing a song from the show to a near-capacity crowd in South Kensington.
The other bizarre thing was that some crackling noises were heard immediately before John Owen-Jones was about to sing ‘Who Am I?’ from Les Misérables, precipitating an early interval, which then went on for over an hour, because they had trouble sorting out whatever technical problem it was. As the performance was being recorded for broadcast on Magic FM, it wasn’t feasible to carry on regardless. When the show finally got underway again the sound remained slightly distorted from my front row stalls vantage point, and, I’m told, significantly distorted for others sat further away from the stage. Henshall and her co-presenter, Trevor Dion Nicholas, rattled through the script and the hall started gradually emptying the later it got. A surreal experience overall, which had much of the audience doing a Mexican wave during the overly long interval.
A number of students from Mountview formed the choir for the event, almost bookmarked by children’s performances – with ‘Revolting Children’ from Matilda The Musical near the beginning, and ‘Teacher’s Pet’ from School of Rock the Musical near the end. Yet another outing for ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked, this time sung as ably as ever by Louise Dearman, and Natalie Paris was another standout for me, with ‘Heart of Stone’ from Six. It would be lovely if some day, a symphony orchestra were to do all of the songs from that show.
There was more John Owen-Jones to come, in the form of the latest round of a series by Edward Seckerson called Comparing Notes, part-interview, part-concert. The High Holborn branch of Pizza Express doesn’t quite have the same ambience as the Royal Albert Hall, and as someone who usually takes advantage of the three course meal deal thing at Pizza Express, the bill at the end of the show is always a bit of a shocker for me, because the meal deal thing doesn’t apply when attending a live music session. I think it’s the main reason why I don’t go to more of Seckerson’s events – they used to be at Charing Cross Theatre, which was far less painful for the current account balance, mostly because those ones started at 3pm and so one had already eaten lunch beforehand. Anyway, I learnt a fair bit about John’s background and vocal techniques. And here’s a name to watch out for: Ryan MacKenzie, a Scottish pianist and the musical director for the event.
On Saturday evening I ventured a little past the Oyster card zone into leafy Surrey. The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is one of those places that I’d heard about repeatedly over the years but had never been. On the train to Guildford I was reminded of an altercation I had with a man who had significant involvement with the Guildford Fringe. I met him having attended a show at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. He had insisted and insisted he had seen me review a show in Guildford, and at that point (at least a couple of years ago, I think) I had never set foot in Guildford – going past it on the A3 doesn’t count as having actually gone there. As he was so persistent, I asked him which show it was that I had apparently reviewed in Guildford. Naturally, he said he couldn’t recall. “Well, there you are then. I’ve never reviewed in Guildford.”
I’ve still never reviewed in Guildford, because I wasn’t asked to review in Guildford. I was merely asked to go along to a show and provide verbal feedback afterwards, which I stuck around for longer than I normally would after a show to do. Way Upstream, an Alan Ayckbourn play, is quirky even by Ayckbourn standards, and like some of his other comedy plays, there’s some sympathy for a couple of characters come the end of proceedings. In this case it’s the rather hapless Alistair Wingate (Jaymes Sygrove) and his wife Emma (Megan Scott, making her professional debut in this production). It’s not revived often, although Chichester Festival Theatre did it in 2015, and the National Theatre in 1982. The NT production became infamous for delaying its opening from August to October, because they had recreated the river on which the play is set, sound effects and dialogue apparently not being sufficient as it was in Guildford in 2019. Some tank or other burst, flooding the National Theatre.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle going in, because I hadn’t been there before, and thanks to the feat of civil engineering that is South Western Railway, I didn’t get to the venue until three minutes before the show was due to start. I went into the venue, the Mill Studio, which doesn’t have a box office, so I had to go into the main house and speak to someone there. The box office was immensely helpful, though technically I went in as a ‘student standby’ because nobody could work out where on earth the ticket price (I was on a company comp thanks to the co-producer) was meant to be costed to. By the time I got back to the venue, at one minute past the official starting time, the front of house staff there had already allocated ‘my’ seat to someone else, so rather than sitting in ‘C9’, wherever C9 was supposed to be, I was in the back row instead. But it was a studio space, so it wasn’t as if I needed binoculars or anything. And the show? Very amusing in many ways, and a longer run (I believe this one was only three days long) may have resulted in ironing out some of the stumbling over lines that went on.
Back on home turf in Wimbledon, Jack Whitehall (as seen on TV, etc) had brought his latest show, still a ‘work in progress’ to the New Wimbledon Theatre. I’d have paid less if he’d did it at the Pleasance Theatre in north London, where quite a few ‘work in progress’ performances take place, though thinking about it a little further I’d have paid nothing at all, as I wouldn’t have bothered going. But this was walking distance from my front door, so I went. Someone called Tom, a member of staff at the theatre, greeted me by name and hoped I would enjoy the show. He probably expressed the same wish to everyone filing in, but still, it was nice to be welcomed personally, especially at a theatre that I seldom attend because their press night invites always come through far too late (their latest one, for American Idiot, came through very late on Friday for the following Tuesday, hours after I had already pre-booked for the NT Live screening of All My Sons at the Odeon Wimbledon cinema up the road on the same night!).
Someone else called Tom, Tom Ward, did the warmup act, which was pleasant enough but largely unmemorable (sorry Tom). There was something about being a single man, with all the pluses and minuses that kind of lifestyle came with. Ward ultimately wants a companion, and that’s still, as it were, a work in progress. In fact, Whitehall touched on a lot of similar themes that Ward did, though the toilet humour was ramped up significantly, including (spoiler alert but I don’t care) a systematic demolition of the wording of a sign next to a door to a hotel swimming pool asking customers to ‘please refrain’ from using the pool if they have ‘active diarrhoea’.
As he has done for some time, Whitehall poked fun at his own privileged upbringing, attempting to change the narrative of previous shopping trips by namedropping a supermarket called ‘The Lie Dell’ (a deliberate mispronunciation of ‘Lidl’), and recounting the time he approached ‘the concierge’ at Primark. An ode to the television series Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father ended proceedings on yet another note about bodily emissions, and that was pretty much it. A show about farts, sex and whatever else goes on down below. But like the stubborn Britishers that Whitehall spoke about (his reason as to why he believes Brexit will still happen), I still don’t regret going along. I couldn’t make over a thousand people roar with laughter while talking at length about passing wind, but I’m glad Whitehall can.
As it’s such a rarity even in West End musicals these days, it’s always good to hear the English National Opera’s orchestra (44-strong for this production of Man of La Mancha). Rather disappointing, then, that there are many sung verses in this show performed without accompaniment. And, of course, if they had opera singers doing it, they’d be doing it without microphones as well. There were some people who pointed out that they are giving this production a wide berth for the simple fact that its lead actor, Kelsey Grammer, is an outspoken supporter of the Donald Trump presidency and its policies. I haven’t seen any footage of his pro-Trump statements (nor am I inclined to do so) but I assume he wants ‘the wall’ and rejects the general consensus with regards to climate change, and so on and so forth.
Grammer’s character, Don Quixote, even says, “Facts are the enemy of truth!” perhaps channelling his inner Kellyanne Conway (previously of the Trump Administration). As this is a story within a story, a drama about drama, eighteen of the twenty-nine cast have more than one part, and the whole thing, narrative-wise, is a confuddled mess. So much so that there’s a two-page synopsis in the show’s programme. It’s not entirely impossible to follow, not least because Quixote is also the show’s narrator, going as far as to introduce characters in a not dissimilar manner to the way in which people are introduced in pantomime. Here comes Character X, along with Character Y.
There is, I think, a certain sense of humour that attempts to permeate the musical, but it is in the end rather absurdist, and one needs to go with the flow somewhat. That is, if one is able to determine in which direction the flow is headed in the first place. Quixote has an overactive imagination: he insists Aldonza (Danielle de Niese) is called Dulcinea, for instance, but I couldn’t make head or tail as to why on earth this was or what the significance of the name is, if any. At a push, it could be argued that there have been, and probably still are, some men who think they know a woman, but really don’t, and so Dulcinea, who doesn’t exist, is representative of the figment of a given man’s imagination of a woman they think they love, but really, that woman’s true personality and personal preferences are far removed from the said figment.
And now perhaps I’m making little (or even no) sense myself – this show is a bit contagious in that regard. The issue I have with Grammer’s portrayal of the main character is not so much the singing (it’s Nicholas Lyndhurst as The Innkeeper who really can’t sing). I found Grammer’s rendering of ‘that song’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, to be quite adequate. It’s rather that his Quixote comes across as too sane to have lost his wits, and thus the character doesn’t, alas, convince. It is often said that there is often a good reason why certain shows, like Man of La Mancha, are rarely revived – simply, there are better ones out there to bring back.
Peter Polycarpou is suitably amusing as Quixote’s right-hand man. Minal Patel’s Padre stands out in his solo number ‘To Each His Dulcinea’. de Niese is technically excellent, with crystal clear delivery, and even during a harrowing scene with a musical number called, accurately enough, ‘The Abduction’, there’s a lively enthusiasm about her. I just couldn’t warm to it as a whole, however, and on the way out, found myself agreeing far more with the man in the row behind who said he still didn’t understand half of it than the woman on my right who clapped, cheered and hollered at curtain call as though she had just won the EuroMillions jackpot.
What amused me more than anything was a note in the programme from Michael Linnit and Michael Grade. For them, Man of La Mancha “ranks on equal terms with My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits”. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, “No, no, no!”
There are some shows that might mention the name of the play or musical within the dialogue itself (never in Les Misérables, many times in Six). Nicky (Kirsty MacLaren) almost overdoes it in This Is My Family, particularly in the second half. I sat there thinking, “Yes, we know that this is your family, we’ve seen them, you’ve all been telling this story of yours for some time now.” But I suppose there isn’t any more repetition here than there is in any other musical. Steve (James Nesbitt), a sort-of Homer Simpson, is married to Yvonne (Clare Burt). Yvonne’s sister, Sian (Rachel Lumberg), is a regular visitor, the chirpy one, the happy one, the one who pops over often and is like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise fractious household. Steve and Yvonne’s teenage children are 17-year-old Matt (Scott Folan) and 13-year-old Nicky.
The show isn’t afraid of stereotypes. Steve’s mother, May (Sheila Hancock) is an older lady whose mental capacities are in decline. She apparently set fire to a lampshade with a scented candle – there must be some people of pensionable age who haven’t lost their wits. Indeed, there are. Exhibit A: most of the other members of the audience at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester (the venue is across the road from the Festival Theatre and under the same management) were retired or close to retirement. Nesbitt glared at me oddly at one point, possibly wondering whether someone under the age of fifty was even allowed in.
Matt goes into goth mode, the sulky teenager who eventually speaks so indistinctly that only other teenagers, such as Nicky, can decipher what he’s going on about. There are moments of proper laugh-out-loud humour – when Yvonne expresses frustration at Steve’s failure to put up a tent because he refused to heed the instructions, May brings the house down by replying that “a man who knows how to read an instruction manual will never give you a good time”. Life in this family is indeed anything but mundane.
This, of course, makes for good theatre. The set is extraordinary, changing from the interior of a Sheffield townhouse to some woodlands, even if it takes a good portion of the interval to make it happen, with large bits of set coming out via various exits, such that front of house staff had to temporarily halt audience movements. That they end up in the woods at all is the result of Nicky winning an essay competition, for which the prize was (rather implausibly) a family holiday anywhere in the world. The precise reasons for a camping holiday (as opposed to, say, a safari trip) are embedded in the narrative and are, I think, too much of a spoiler to reveal here, suffice to say it is Nicky’s attempt to reunite the warring factions of her family and help them to come together and appreciate one another as they once did. Aww.
It’s a unique musical, lacking the big song-and-dance numbers but also holding my attention through first-rate acting all round and an amusing storyline. The level of detail is impressive, both in the set and in the dialogue, which goes as far as to point out that school shirts are in the dryer. A most enjoyable and entertaining show.
It was like listening to a cat being strangled. I mean, it really was that unpleasant. Anne-Marie Duff, who takes on the title role in the Donmar Warehouse production of Sweet Charity, acts the part tremendously well, and the spoken dialogue with her lover, Oscar Lindquist (a commensurately sublime Arthur Darvill) was convincing enough. But when it comes to singing – goodness me, I know I can’t sing to save my life, but I would never agree to do a musical! Ms Duff probably wasn’t as terrible in her own right as I’m making her out to be, and her previous body of work across plays, film and television is very impressive. But surrounding her with the likes of fourteen others who can sing brilliantly only seeks to exacerbate a comparative weakness.
I have it on good authority that people like Gemma Sutton and Rebecca Trehearne have played Charity Hope Valentine in previous productions. Put Duff’s singing voice against that of Martin Marquez’s Vittorio Vidal, as the show does in the first half, and her ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ is lukewarm at best as opposed to his impassioned but never melodramatic ‘Too Many Tomorrows’. I know I’m going on about this, but a theatre of the Donmar’s calibre really should cast people who can sing to sing. They managed to do so with everyone else!
It was difficult to warm to Charity – this is my first Sweet Charity (apart from seeing the movie), but I would consider seeing another production in the future – and I felt little sympathy for her when Oscar decides (for reasons explained in the narrative) that, actually, he doesn’t want to marry Charity after all. I understood reasonably well from the dialogue and staging that one is supposed to feel a degree of sympathy for Charity – having left her employment, back in the days when (some) women did that sort of thing when entering matrimony, she must now rebuild her life almost from scratch.
A fellow theatregoer found the ending rather sad. I think it is open-ended, really, in that while Charity’s future may not be the one she had hoped for and planned for, her personal position in life come the curtain call is a great opportunity to start afresh. She hated her job, with some justification, and she managed to get out, so the potential for success is still very much there. It may not be a conventional happy conclusion to a musical theatre story, but for me it’s more of a pragmatic one than a pessimistic one.
Wayne McGregor’s choreography suits the performance space very well, a departure from the Bob Fosse moves which will upset the purists (but then again, what doesn’t?) but it’s nonetheless exquisite and a joy to sit and witness. I’d never sat in the circle at the Donmar before, but I’d say that at least for this production, it’s a better vantage point than the stalls – there are two flights of stairs on stage, and that staircase gets a fair bit of use.
Then there’s Daddy Brubeck, played in the week I saw this production by Le Gateau Chocolat (a stage name, obvs), who marched on for ‘The Rhythm of Life’ early in the second half, and wasn’t to be seen again. According to Chocolat’s Twitter, he tried to get back to the Donmar for the curtain call having escaped to a birthday party, but Piers Morgan was making a speech and rattled on for too long, so he arrived back in Covent Garden just as the audience started to file out. For the one song he was given, he swaggered and strutted his stuff, and puffed on a ridiculously oversized spliff. Yes, it was hammy. But it was also hugely enjoyable. Pity the producers didn’t put him in the lead role and make a drag act out of Charity Hope Valentine: that really would have brought the house down.
At Donmar Warehouse until 8 June 2019.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.