I don’t like going to The O2 Arena. It’s too far out, and the transport connections are not brilliant. The best way out back to central London afterwards is by boat – yes, boat – the Jubilee line is far too stuffy and crowded, and good luck getting out of there any time soon in a car. Taking a bus takes forever and those black taxis and private hire cabs are too expensive, given the price of a decent ticket to see something at The O2. The last time I saw a Canadian singer in concert was Leonard Cohen, now sadly missed, and who thankfully played dates at the Royal Albert Hall as well as The O2, allowing people like me to not be quite so, in Cohen’s own words, “financially and geographically inconvenienced”. And as I remarked at the time, how we danced to the end of love. I must have some perspective, however: Celine Dion’s Manchester Arena concert was re-scheduled to Leeds First Direct Arena as renovation work goes on until early September at the Manchester Arena
This, then, is how I ended up seeing Celine Dion at London’s O2 Arena. I went to see the journalist and broadcaster Edward Seckerson interview Stephen Ashfield, famous for outstanding supporting roles in Jersey Boys and The Book of Mormon musicals. From that mixture of conversation and song, one of the surprising and most memorable points to note was his ‘guilty pleasure’ (his choice of term) for Celine Dion. If my memory serves me correctly, he saw her live show in Las Vegas, and was very quickly moved to tears (of joy!) by it. Earlier this year I found myself seeing Alice Fearn, who at the time of writing is playing the lead role of Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked (a show which has never appealed to me, having seen it just the once back in 2009, but has enjoyed continued commercial success) in concert. Both she and other cast members of Wicked were raving about Celine: Willemijn Verkaik half-jokingly said she was considering pulling a sickie in order to attend Celine’s London concerts.
Verkaik is, of course, a consummate professional – and performers in long-running theatre productions are entitled to annual leave in any event, so calling in sick would not have been necessary. The salient point, however, is that Celine Dion was coming to London, and she is someone held in great esteem by these musical theatre actors, and many others besides. Having never actually seen her perform live, I thought I’d take the plunge. The cheaper seats having been taken by the time I even found out about her concerts, I ended up going the other way and splashing out on a VIP seat, which in the end didn’t involve anything other than a few bits of merchandise thrown into a goodie bag. I splashed out on a coffee mug, with ‘MY (heart symbol) WILL GO ON’ on one side and a photo of Celine on the other, and a glossy programme (which slightly surprisingly wasn’t included in the goodie bag).
Thank goodness for the Night Tube. Not that I would have been stranded. Thames Clippers run extra ‘river buses’ on ‘O2 event nights’, which were a considerable improvement this time around: when I saw Bon Jovi play at The O2 Arena in 2010, the river bus service was a complete shambles, and a very discourteous member of staff shouted at us waiting passengers, something about not being able to conjure up another boat out of thin air. We did get to Waterloo Pier until after 1am. In 2017, all was pleasant (apart from a pair of ladies who saw it fit to shove me out of the way, without apology or acknowledgement, to get on the boat before me) – a senior member of staff was even contemplating, out loud, commanding another boat into action dependent on customer demand (these days, you can just use the Oyster pay-as-you-go system rather than having to pre-book). According to my Oyster account I boarded the boat at North Greenwich Pier at 23:21, disembarked at Embankment Pier at 00:05, and was on the London Underground at 00:08, arriving at my local station at 00:35. Given Celine went on (and on) until 23:03, that really wasn’t too bad.
I am grateful for the extra food and drink outlets available at The O2 now ‘after security’. This does, I appreciate, make an entertainment centre sound like an airport. Indeed, The O2’s security measures are stricter than Heathrow Airport’s, insofar as the latter will allow up to 100ml of liquid through. The O2 allows none. Not a drop. The ‘after security’ pizza and chips that I bought from one of the many places went down a treat, and I was served reasonably quickly given the considerable number of people queuing up. There were sufficient places to stand and eat, too, and if you needed to sit down sooner rather than later, the auditorium doors were open a full 90 minutes before the support act came on (and 135 minutes before Celine took to the stage).
Véronic DiCaire, 40, from Embrun, Ontario, is worth mentioning. Hers, I think, is the best support act I have seen to date (though I should qualify that and add that as a theatre critic, I don’t get out to many gigs – plays and musicals being my standard ‘going out’ fare). Okay, it was all backing tracks but the lighting was done well. Véronic is, in her own words, an impressionist of female singers, such that Celine even hinted that if she (Celine) were indisposed for whatever reason, Véronic could return to the stage and perform impressions of Celine.
Véronic actually could, if the worst came to the worst. For this opening act, the audience was treated to a large number of chart music songs made famous by a wide selection of artists, including Pink, Tina Turner and Susan Boyle. A brief rendering of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ brought the house down on this London crowd. People around me whose knowledge of chart music was and is far superior to my own were repeatedly impressed at the accuracy of Véronic’s impressions, and her curtain closer, The Whitney Houston version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ was a fitting end to a whistle-stop tour of the sort of music I would only usually encounter in a minicab or if someone is playing their music obtrusively loudly on the Tube.
The main act followed a tried and tested formula of many a popular singer doing a concert in front of an arena-sized audience. There were minutes and minutes of build-up between the lights going down and Celine Dion actually appearing on-stage and singing, more than ample opportunity for a die-hard Celine fan to stand up prematurely, for people behind her to complain, and for her to sit back down again. I’m quite sure there would have been time to nip out to the arena conveniences and buy a beer. The show proper was two magical hours, without an interval, though there were two separate musical interludes, in which the musicians – always ‘the musicians’, never ‘the band’ (and there weren’t quite enough of them to constitute an orchestra) – under the direction of Scott Price, took over and provided some rather beautiful compositions to be enjoyed.
To not have closed out with ‘My Heart Will Go On’ would be a little bit like Bon Jovi not closing their concert with ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. (In the end, there was yet another number from Celine, ‘Love of My Life’, made famous by Queen.) But if the assumption was that this would be two hours of power ballad after power ballad, such was the variety of music performed that people who wanted Mellow Magic FM on stage may well have been disappointed. The rest of us were enthralled by this dazzling display and mixture of the upbeat and the reflective, the slow and the speedy, the all-too-familiar and the novel.
Celine has an excellent rapport with the audience, always maintaining a pleasant persona, even when certain members in the crowd who just couldn’t help but call out anything that came to mind at the top of their lungs, from the sublime to the ridiculous, in some desperate attempt to get Celine’s attention. The sublime was responded to (“I love you too, baby”) and at one point, after a stunning delivery of Jim Steinman’s ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’, at least twenty-five thank-yous (no exaggeration), in response to an extended round of cheering and applause. The ridiculous was roundly ignored.
I was aware that Celine had lost her husband and one of her brothers within days of one another in 2016 to cancer. This is the sort of tour that clearly puts her back on the map, and she is unafraid of being candid about what happened then, and much more besides. By her own admission, she loves to talk, which is partly why I began with by mentioning Leonard Cohen, because her own observations about life and its imponderables, while not quite reaching the philosophical depths of Cohen’s anecdotes and lyrics, threatened to frustrate those in the crowd who would have preferred more singing. As someone who within the last week held back from a five-star review of an otherwise flawless concert elsewhere for lack of personal stories for the audience to connect to, Celine Dion going on (and on – I know I’ve already done that punchline, but I can’t help it) about anything from shopping whenever she is in London to her fans and followers blessing her not so much with a hit but with a career, was heavenly.
In some respects, there is nothing new under the sun here. Familiarity sometimes really does breed contempt. But in the familiarity of some of these songs (part-way through ‘Think Twice’, Celine points her microphone at the audience, the vast majority of whom, on cue, sing/shout, “No, no, no, no!”) come feelings of ecstasy and euphoria. Celine is closer to 50 than 40, but this doesn’t stop her from being as bendy and flexible as ever during Le Ballet, a male dancer, apparently called Ben (think Jamie Dornan of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame) has the superstar in compromising positions more than once. Ardent feminists would have been horrified. But, as Celine almost happily admitted, neither she nor anyone else can always please everyone.
Celine’s is a truly unique performance. With each and every song, there’s a strong emotional attachment – one got a palpable feeling that, for instance, things really were getting serious. The passing of her husband René Angélil made the line ‘Don’t want to be / All by myself / Anymore’ all the more meaningful for both Celine and her fanbase than ever before. To top it all off, she leaves the stage, and with just a handful of her team taking on security roles, strides all the way through the centre aisle of The O2 Arena to a small platform next to the sound desk, to make her farewells. The French language has two words for ‘goodbye’, one roughly meaning ‘bye for now’ and the other approximating to ‘goodbye forever’. For this French-Canadian singer, it was definitely au revoir rather than adieu. She’s still got it, oh yes.
This marks the last time for a little while that I’ll be using East Midlands Trains to get to Sheffield. I have yet to experience a bad service from them, and their services have got me to and from both the Sheffield theatres (the Lyceum and the Crucible) and the Leicester Curve on time, every time. But, like most people, I must watch the pennies. I return to Sheffield in October to see the touring production of The Band, but will be using the National Express coach service. Cheaper, y’see: £5 per ticket each way as opposed to £8 on Megabus, and £27 each way on EMT (or £23.50 to sit in standard class, so it’s a no-brainer to just cough up a tad more to sit in first class). And for the date I’ll be trekking up to Sheffield, EMT were quoting £44 each way!
To effectively bump myself up to ‘first class’ on the coach I’ve taken the liberty of buying two tickets, both for me. I am grateful to the coach regulars on which ever travel discussion forum it was for advising me to do this. As Blanche Dubois would say, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” All in (National Express charge booking fees), that’s still £22 in total instead of £88. The extra travel time is fine with me. I have heard some nightmare stories about coaches not turning up and rowdy / obnoxious people on board but at least I don’t have any transfers to worry about, which seems to be the major bugbear for people in terms of missing connections and then being forced to buy another ticket at the full day rate. If it’s truly terrible, naturally, I’ll have to bite the bullet and switch back to EMT. I’ve already booked to see Titanic in Sheffield in 2018. I will report back either way in October 2017.
As for the show I saw this time, I don’t recall seeing very many of the films whose trailers were being played as the audience files in for The Wedding Singer, set in 1980s America, though not nearly as political as Angels in America, focusing instead on the feel-good factor that the glitzy Broadway musicals are renowned for. I saw ET one Christmas back when there was some decent programming on television during the holiday season, but practically all of the others left me nonplussed. I haven’t even seen The Wedding Singer movie. No matter: there was much enjoyment to be had in observing the signage and advertisements periodically on display as the show progressed, particularly in the ‘new’ cellular phone, which apparently had a talk time of 30 minutes, a charge time of 10 hours, and was available to purchase for $2,999.
I wondered why Glen Gulia (Ray Quinn) got the loudest cheer at curtain call. He did very well (his ‘All About The Green’ was impressive), but Quinn wasn’t the leading man, and while he performed perfectly competently, it was Jon Robyns’ Robbie Hart that was the most compelling for me. But then I don’t watch those Saturday night glorified karaoke competitions on television very often (and even then, not for very long), so the whole ‘As Seen on Dancing On Ice’ thing that still remains the pinnacle thus far of Quinn’s career (he won the 2009 series of that show) rather went over my head.
Expecting anything too dark or too philosophical would have been an exercise in futility. Dramaturgically, the show is too predictable. Robbie gets the girl, Julia Sullivan (Cassie Compton), after a whole load of twists and turns to the story. From a feminist perspective: oh dear. But there were plenty of women in the audience who lapped up the entertainment on offer, and though much of the humour lacks subtlety, it allowed this cast, clearly enjoying themselves on stage, to perform with joy and pizzazz.
Robyns’ Robbie is a tour de force, probably Robyns’ best role to date, and that’s including that amazing, if slightly crude, lead role of Princeton in Avenue Q. ‘Somebody Kill Me’ is one of the few times I’ve sat in a theatre watching a character express a death-wish, in a hilarious manner, chortling away at it, and not feel even a smidge of guilt. It’s not that I’m a heartless bastard (though there is that), but that Robbie’s moods swing so dramatically, he’s down in the dumpster in more ways than one before he’s bouncing around because love always, always wins. And love, as the audience is repeatedly told, is what he does.
Also worthy of mention is a duet with Rosie (Ruth Madoc) and George (Samuel J Holmes), called ‘Move That Thang’. Madoc is gifted one of the show’s most glorious lines: “I’d already slept with eight men. That was a lot back then. It would be like two hundred today.” I personally found Holmes’ American accent rather questionable, particularly against best buddy and bandmate Sammy (Ashley Emerson). The choreography isn’t the best, but I came away with both upbeat tunes like ‘Single’ and the ballad ‘If I Told You’ humming away in my head, always a good sign that this musical has truly connected.
Recently on the London Underground someone rather curtly told me to get out of the way so that he could use the interconnecting doors to the next carriage. Never mind that there was ample room (by Tube standards, anyway) in the carriage we were already in, or that the interconnecting door was clearly marked ‘Emergency use only’. I promptly moved, and rather than simply going through, he spent some moments standing there and taking me to task for being in the way in the first place. Due to the noise of the Tube rattling through the tunnel I did not hear everything he said, but I got the impression I was supposed to have supernatural powers, insofar as I should have anticipated in advance that he wanted to pass through where I happened to be standing, and that I majorly inconvenienced him as he had to ask me – no, tell me – to move. Of course, simply waiting for the next station for the main train doors to open on the platform was completely out of the question.
I know I’m out of London when I know beyond reasonable doubt that I was in the wrong, and come out unscathed. Before Doorgate happened, I sat in the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, to see The House They Grew Up In, a new play. It wasn’t on my list of things to see originally, but as I was in Chichester to see Fiddler On The Roof in the Festival Theatre, and tickets were still available for the other show, I thought I might as well stay on. The set is that of a cluttered house, somewhere in south London, with piles of bric-a-brac in every available space. “That looks like our house,” so said the chap who sat next to me. Without thinking properly, I blurted out, “I was just about to say!” which prompted the reply, “How do you know? You haven’t been to my house!” What I meant, of course, was that my own house was just as cluttered as the one we were looking at on stage, and having clarified that point, we engaged in some pre-show banter and all was well with the world.
Rudi Millard as Ben (at the performance I attended: the role is shared with Leonardo Dickens) is amazingly talented – this is not some RADA graduate taking on the role of a schoolboy, but a schoolboy playing a schoolboy. He more than holds his own alongside the adult characters, which is as much of a testament to him as it is to the playwright, Deborah Bruce, for writing such a credible character who gets convincingly annoyed / upset / elated / confused as circumstances arise.
Daniel (Daniel Ryan) is a man on the autistic spectrum. His sister Pepe (Samantha Spiro) is his primary caregiver. And, goodness me, is Spiro’s Pepe intense. Frantically trying to do what everything that needs to be done, it’s a tour de force performance that in lesser hands might well have come across as a whingeing and whining woman who would do better to expend their energy on what it is that needs doing rather than complaining about struggling to cope. But she has zero subtlety, and doesn’t really know when to stop talking, leaving PC Gordon (Michelle Greenidge) – and much of the audience – utterly bemused. No wonder Daniel would rather stick on his headphones and listen to music.
Quite why there are police officers in the show in the first place comes about as a result of Sophie (Mary Stockley), a horrible woman really, the epitome of a ‘shit mother’, contacting the police because her son Ben has been spending time with Daniel. Sophie and Ben live next door to Daniel and Pepe, and the friendship struck between Ben and Daniel is just a friendship. But it’s all grossly misinterpreted, and although Ben was always able to leave whenever he wanted (at one point Daniel tells him to go), Daniel is placed under arrest. It is assumed Ben was being groomed.
There always was lack of evidence, and because Ben stoically refuses to have charges pressed against Daniel, DC Nichols (Matt Sutton) has the unenviable task of trying to explain to Sophie why Daniel isn’t getting a life sentence without parole, or indeed any custodial sentence whatsoever. It transpires Sophie is far from blameless herself in the whole affair, which only adds to her unpleasant and distasteful nature.
At least some good comes out of the stressful chain of events, as exhausting to watch as it is for Pepe and Daniel to go through. As their situation has been brought to the attention of social services, Pepe finally gets some assistance, mostly if not entirely in the form of Karen Parry (also Michelle Greenidge: at this point the police investigation has been closed, and classified as ‘NFA’ – no further action), one of those relentlessly positive people, a sort of Pollyanna. The plot twists keep coming as Daniel turns his attention to Pepe’s past and her own problems. Moments of hilarity provide much needed comic relief – I’d tell you what they were, but it would give too much away.
It’s a well constructed, well cast and well performed production. Perhaps it’s just a bit longer than it really needs to be, but apart from that, it’s a play with depth: a thought-provoking night out.
There has to be a first time for everything, I suppose, and this production of A Tale of Two Cities is the first production I’ve come across at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre that was a spectacular failure. To give you some idea of how often I’m at the OAT, a) I’ve abbreviated it to ‘OAT’ and b) their Commercial Director, Andy Locke, greeted me by name at the interval. I don’t see all their productions without fail – there are too many venues and shows in and around London to try to get around to. But I couldn’t help looking at the back cover of the show’s programme, an advertisement for Half A Sixpence, and wishing I was seeing that production again, or perhaps any number of different shows infinitely more deserving to be on the London stage than this one.
Not having read the novel by Charles Dickens, I came to see this show ‘blind’, and promptly got lost. A chap on my right spent an inexorable amount of time talking to his partner, explaining what was going on: he was quite sure that there were a large number of similarities between the novel and this stage adaptation. The chap on my left was palpably frustrated, not being able to understand what was going on. For my part, I was reassured by other members of the audience glancing repeatedly at their programmes that I wasn’t the only one who had to keep returning to the synopsis to figure out where we were.
The stage revolves, but to little purpose. All there ever is to see are three blue containers and the contents therein. At one point a table is brought on (and then, of course, later brought back off) but revolves aren’t required for that. Repeated references to “hundreds of people” made no sense – I counted nine on stage. The audience is also expected to believe that Sydney Carton (Nicholas Karimi) looks like Charles Darnay (Jude Owusu), as per the novel: but on stage, these two have neither a similar build nor hairstyle nor height.
Most of the cast are utterly dull. The exceptions, aside from the aforementioned Karimi’s Carton and Owusu’s Darnay are Dr Manette (Patrick Driver) and Jarvis Lorry (Kevork Malikyan), and two child actors – one out of Aliya Ali, Foyinsola Ighodalo and Olivea Puci and one out of Evie Buxton, Mia Dalley and Kaitlyn Kou. Manette is a plausible nervous wreck, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by a stay in the Bastille Saint-Antoine, a state penitentiary subjected to rioting on 14 July 1789.
I like the vision of this production but detest its execution. I can see why the OAT didn’t want to do a solidly faithful-to-the-original stage version of a well-read novel. But the stuff of those scenic BBC films would, in this instance, have been far better. I wondered whether this was some sort of community project, such was the near-universal stilted and artificial delivery of Matthew Dunster’s script. I was therefore astonished to discover the usual lists of previous professional credits in the programme. At times whatever certain characters were saying simply could not be heard. It is not sufficient to blame the outdoor surroundings for this – this is a venue that stages musicals with every line of every number understood perfectly.
The show may well win some brownie points (ahem) from the left-wing white liberals who are so quick to cry villainy when a cast in a major London venue is majority-white let alone all-white. But there are characters (too much of a spoiler to say precisely whom) who can’t even ‘die’ with any credibility, slumping to the floor in what comes across as a grossly under-rehearsed – nay, unrehearsed – manner.
It was difficult to tell whether the show was in London or Paris (the two cities of the show’s title) at times, or whether it was set back in the day or in modern times. The Monseigneur (Nicholas Khan) and his royal court are dressed in nineteenth-century finery, but the other characters are in distinctly contemporary modes of dress. Again, where are we? Quite a few people left at the interval – “it was the worst of times” indeed. Bleurgh.
UPDATE: At the request of 'The Heretical Historians' the below post is now a review after all, and published here: www.londontheatre1.com/news/177898/review-of-the-trial-of-le-singe-at-the-space-arts-centre/
“Ladies and gentlemen, and esteemed miscellaneous,” beams Larry (Matthew Jameson), a remarkably (and, I suspect, possibly deliberately) topical opening, in the light of a decision by Transport for London, publicised in the press hours before the performance I attended, to stop using ‘ladies and gentlemen’ in its public address announcements, in favour of ‘hello everyone’ or similar gender-neutral phrasing.
Events proper in The Trial of Le Singe begin in the North Sea in 1815. Sea spit immerses the audience (quite how would be revealing too much) before characters start speaking in faux French, like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Take umbrage or take pleasure, whatever your disposition. Not for nothing is this theatrical group called ‘The Heretical Historians’, and with no monarch (of whatever kingdom) present, treason and/or being ‘sent to the Tower’ were never on the cards: they really were at liberty to say whatever they liked.
So when a question of money arose, ‘Atless ‘Arry (Leah Kirby) points out that we are the vicinity of Canary Wharf, so one of the financial institutions should be able to assist in securing some cash. Breaches of the fourth wall of this nature added to the anarchic nature of proceedings, which seemed to lurch between nineteenth-century manners of speaking to contemporary standards of securing a fair hearing in the actual trial of Le Singe (Salvatore Scarpa).
There were times, I must admit, when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what precisely was going on. Lord Garrington (a suitably dapper Lloyd McDonagh) arrives at a pub called The New Red Lion, subheaded “a future JD Wetherspoon”. The use of video projections ensures the setting of each scene was clear. The production also finds ways of acknowledging the limitations of staging a play. “Where are you going to find sand in London?” sneers ‘Arry, spreading around what the audience must assume to be sand for a scene at the beach. Poor ‘Arry. He keeps forgetting the show is set in Hartlepool.
It’s cleverly written, even for those who aren’t particularly appreciative of the show’s style of humour. Le Singe, when he finally takes to the witness stand, proves himself more eloquent than everyone else, such that Larry, who has now assumed the role of the judge in this seemingly impromptu trial, can only reply that he has no idea what the apparent Frenchman is talking about.
Elsewhere, there’s something of the stage adaptation of The 39 Steps about this production, both in terms of its purposefully cheap set and almost relentlessly brisk pacing. Sally (Bertie Cox) is a tribute, in effect, to a bygone era in which male actors played female characters. This being a comedy, a lot of action is hammed up, but it’s done with great aplomb. And everything you’ve just read doesn’t constitute a review. I saw this production as the second part to a double-bill, but was only really invited to review the first; I was, unlike some others, too polite to leave the theatre at the interval. Let’s just say I don’t regret having stayed behind.
This production has an ongoing Kickstarter project, running to 23 July 2017. For further details please visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/306395623/the-trial-of-le-singe-the-heretical-historians
Image: (C) Cameron Mackintosh Ltd
I noted on social media on my second visit to The Wind in The Willows, which has taken up a summer residency at the London Palladium, that certain shows are best enjoyed without my proverbial reviewer hat on. I wish I could say the same for all shows, but a) personal enjoyment is a matter of personal preference and b) just because a production isn’t to my personal taste, when the reviewer hat is on, if it’s a good production, it deserves to be credited accordingly if it’s got a lot going for it. The best example I can offer is Mamma Mia!, a show which has rightly been going strong in the West End since April 1999. I don’t listen to the music contained in it, and I couldn’t tell you who is in in the current cast, but it is a feel-good show with a credible storyline (for a musical, anyway).
The Wind in the Willows, which I quite happily gave four stars to, has been treated less favourably elsewhere, prompting Craig Mather, who plays the Mole, to tweet a comparison between press reviews for The Wind in the Willows and that of Les Miserables back in 1985. Is The Wind in the Willows the sort of show that will win over audiences even if critical appraisals have been mixed? I’m not so sure. Even on a Friday night and in a Palladium sort-of filled (it wasn’t quite a sell-out) with a considerable number of children, applause was measured and polite throughout. When one considers the source material, the creatives have done what they can with it in terms of adapting it for the stage. There’s an element of ‘if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise’, but the dangers in the Edwardian borderline utopia of the original novel are hardly the stuff of the Harry Potter series.
First time around I was treated to Chris Aukett playing Mr Toad, understudying for Rufus Hound. I rather preferred the former. Hound’s singing vocals are a little rough around the edges, accentuated by performing alongside the likes of Mather, Simon Lipkin’s Rat and Gary Wilmot’s Badger. No such differential in talent was to be found in Half A Sixpence over at the Noel Coward Theatre, which I wasn’t intending to return to quite so soon. I caught wind of the news that David Birch was to take on the role of Arthur Kipps for the first time, with superstar Charlie Stemp indisposed. There is, of course, no pleasure in hearing that Charlie Stemp isn’t taking to the stage for any other reason than pre-booked annual leave or a one-off performance elsewhere, and the response to his tour de force ‘triple threat’ has been nothing short of phenomenal.
What I hadn’t realised was that, having just reviewed a late afternoon show in Hackney that will go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month, I was dashing into Covent Garden on Pride in London weekend. This year is particularly significant for Pride participants, as it marks half a century since homosexuality was decriminalised in this country. I inadvertently photobombed a picture being taken by some Pride attendees, but in my defence the picture was taken very suddenly, in the middle of the pavement, with no attempt to veer off to one side to allow others to pass through. But the salient point here is that it wasn’t easy to get through such large crowds, and I only wish I had more time to appreciate the spirit of love, life and liberty that was very palpable in central London.
I plumped, after some consultation with the box office, for a front row seat in the Royal Circle. I won’t make a habit of this any time soon: it’s a great, great vantage point, but paying full box office price for a Saturday night performance is not something my bank balance can handle with any regularity. Having searched for the conveniences I found myself in the Dress Circle, through which I had to enter to reach the gents toilets. After I had done what was necessary (you need not know all the details), I sat down in the Dress Circle, and felt short-changed by the bars and railings in front of me. ‘Dress Circle’ usually is one level up, not two; what is known as the Dress Circle in the Noel Coward would, in most other theatres, be called the Upper Circle. Thus I had to make half a dozen people in the Dress Circle get up, while I relocated to the Royal Circle: but with still some minutes before the show was to start, and not everyone had filed in, at least I was spared the embarrassment of having someone telling me I was in their seat.
This not being an actual review, I make no apologies for the plethora of ‘spoilers’ that are about to follow. This particular performance was very much ‘Understudy Central’. Marcus Tilt (I think) was at the conductor’s podium, in place of Graham Hurman. Matthew Dale played Sid Pornick, in place of Alex Hope. Nick Butcher played Buggins, in place of Sam O’Rourke. Jaye Elster played Aunt Susan (and then later, Lady Dacre), in place of Annie Wensak. As Charlie and Alex were not on stage, and their understudies were somewhat shorter, this left Callum Train as Pierce looking taller than ever. This also made David Birch’s jumps from the bar during the second movement of ‘Money To Burn’ all the more remarkable.
Also, one of the lines from Vivien Parry’s Mrs Walsingham had, unusually, a double meaning. In her usual brusque manner, she tells her daughter Helen (Emma Williams, delightful and sublime as ever) that she is, at least, “rid of that frightful little man”. Kipps, whoever Kipps is played by, is only ‘frightful’ to the likes of Mrs Walsingham, for reasons apparent in the narrative, but this one was comparatively ‘little’, closer in stature to Tommy Steele than Charlie Stemp. For whatever reason, Birch thought it a good idea to pronounce the opening gambit of ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ as though it were just one word. “JustdowhathesaysIwantaproperphotographasamomento.”
Birch’s overall performance was closer to Steele’s than Stemp’s, even if any serious comparison between the 1967 motion picture and this reworked stage version is difficult because the two are so very different. It has been pointed out to me that Stemp’s Mr Kipps is such a polished and perfect performance that some of the edginess and rawness of the character that Steele brought to the role has been stripped out. Nonetheless, it’s an award-winning performance for a reason. Several, really – I won’t regurgitate them all here. As for Birch, he does it all with confidence: there’s a likeable and endearing air about him. He’s subtler than Stemp (but then, is it humanly possible to perform with more gusto and panache than Stemp?), and the vulnerability and good intentions of the shop assistant who suddenly comes into money are palpably evident.
The show is in very safe hands with Birch at the helm. The cast get behind David as much as they get behind Charlie. This is all academic and hypothetical as the production has posted closing notices, but if the show were to go into a second year in the West End, requiring a cast change, I’d be more than happy for David Birch to have stepped up to the plate full time. Whoever would have thought, with weeks to go, Half A Sixpence could still be uncovering previously unseen talent within its cast?
There is always a disparity between the reality on the ground and people’s aspirations. Love’s Labour’s Lost, a musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play of the same name, explores this concept reasonably well, with Don Armado (a suitably extravagant and boisterous Johan Munir) trying to woo Jaquenetta (Sherelle Kelleher) in a delightful musical number. There are 27 musical numbers in all, in a 90-minute single-act show, presented as the annual Royal Academy of Music Postgraduate Musical Theatre full-blown show prior to graduation. A summer showcase, if you will.
While they would ordinarily use their in-house theatre on their Marylebone Road premises, it is being renovated as part of a campus-wide multi-million pound refurbishment. So this time around, the summer showcase went across to the Hackney Empire. Judging by the threadbare carpet in the stalls, it is in need of some significant restoration itself. I do not venture into Hackney very often, not having much business there, and the town centre (let alone anywhere else in Hackney) remains difficult to get to, even with the London Overground service, which was almost dangerously overcrowded both to and from Hackney Central. On a Saturday. Goodness knows how overcrowded it must be during the working week. As for taking the bus – well, if I wanted to spend a week in transit I would prefer to save up and fork out to be on a cruise.
This being my first ever visit to the Hackney Empire itself, I found the staff very warm and friendly, not an experience universally shared. I am led to believe that on the Sunday during this four-day run of student performances, a particularly abrasive member of staff was manning the box office, taking an unpleasant and sarcastic tone with patrons. But I seemed to have struck lucky: when buying a glass of prosecco from the bar, they let me have the rest of the bottle as its contents wouldn’t quite fit into the prescribed glass size. It was, I estimate, very nearly two glasses for the price of one.
The 2017 Musical Theatre Company and Band, as the glossy programme states is their collective name, were performing even before the performance. (They weren’t always glossy programmes: in previous years they were clearly ones put together using MS Word and whacked through a monochrome printer in the office.) Chart music seemed to be in vogue on a smaller stage set up near the bar at the rear of the stalls, with only piano accompaniment. Among the songs performed were ‘Walking in Memphis’, made famous by either Marc Cohn or Cher, or both if you are so inclined, and ‘I Want It That Way’, a Backstreet Boys tune.
There is nothing to be achieved in detailing what goes on in this musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. For that you may read any synopsis of the Shakespeare play. Or even just read the Shakespeare play. That seems to me to be the biggest problem. At least when West Side Story was derived from Romeo and Juliet, some pains were taken to ensure the right amount of changes from the older story, such that it is unmistakably that older story, but set in more relatively contemporary times.
All the writers of this version of Love’s Labour’s Lost seem to have done is transport the show to the United States but keep all the characters the same. The whole thing thus becomes rather bizarre. What part of the United States ever had a King (Benjamin Forehlich)? Aside from Elvis Presley, I mean, and this show never goes anywhere near his style of music. I daresay it might have been beneficial if it did; it might have jazzed things up a little. By ‘a little’, I mean a lot. Instead, the audience is subjected to ‘Labour of Love’, blank verse sung in the style of The Wanted. (Yes, I Googled ‘boy band’, not wanting to continue using The Beach Boys as a vocal harmony group reference, particularly as that group has not been top of the Billboard chart since 1988, and probably never will be number one ever again.)
Anyway, the humour was there, and this being a fresh-faced and up-for-it company, who have just spent close to a year of their lives being drilled and educated and trained and choreographed (etc, etc) in all things musical theatre, they certainly gave it some welly. But the modern-day setting for such an old story meant it all ended rather lazily, plot-wise, even by musical theatre standards.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.